Hundreds of academics are collectively taking aim at the Conservative government's electoral reform bill, directing criticism at a Senate committee they say has failed to adequately address concerns over the "irremediably flawed bill."
In an April 23 open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, MPs and senators, some 465 signatories call on the government to withdraw the controversial Fair Elections Act and draft anew.
"We urge all conscientious Members of Parliament to work to this end and, if necessary, to vote against the Bill," says the letter, published in Wednesday's Globe and Mail. "And failing that, Senators should keep faith with their role in our constitutional order – the voice of sober second thought – and return it to the House of Commons for further amendment."
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation.)
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre defended the act Tuesday evening as a "common sense bill."
"The Fair Elections Act is common sense and reasonable," he said. "For example, it makes the reasonable request that people show ID when they vote."
The letter was drafted by a half-dozen professors and signed by hundreds more from various disciplines at universities across the country. "Nobody can remember a time when so many professors came together," said co-drafter Monique Deveaux, the Canada Research Chair in ethics and global social change at the University of Guelph.
The professors argue the changes proposed last week by the standing Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs won't rid the act of certain "glaring defects."
They identify four objections to the bill: failure to provide the Commissioner of Elections the power to compel witness testimony when investigating electoral fraud; "partisan" appointment of election-poll supervisors; a "gag" on Elections Canada's efforts to encourage voter turnout; and the elimination of vouching as a "safeguard of the constitutional right to vote."
The letter follows an open letter signed last month by upwards of 160 academics, many of whom also signed this latest one, but it casts a wider net by addressing senators and highlighting their role.
"The concern was that the proposed amendments that came out of the Senate committee would be understood by the wider public as adequate response to criticisms of the bill," said University of Toronto political science professor Melissa Williams, who initiated the April 23 letter. "My judgment – and that of my many, many colleagues – is that the proposed amendments don't touch the main harms that the bill will do to democratic institutions."
Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, the chair of the Senate committee that issued nine recommendations last week, said he is "not surprised" by the latest academic outcry.
"The [committee] made some solid [recommendations] that were generally well received," he said in an e-mail. "That set some of the critics back on their heels for a while and now they're making every effort to diminish the [committee's] work and its impact on public opinion."
Mr. Runciman pointed to April 9 committee testimony from Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto associate professor of political science, who noted he didn't put his name on the letter signed by the 160 academics in March.
"My feeling was, I wonder how many of these people voted for the government party to begin with, and if the government changed its position would they actually change their attitude, too?" Prof. Wiseman told the committee. "Often what you get is a reflex that if it comes from so and so it has to be bad, or if it comes from such and such it has it be good. This has been caught up in a partisan fight."
The Senate committee's April 15 recommendations included raising the required time that robocall firms must keep certain records for investigators, removing a proposed expense exemption, and preserving Elections Canada's relationship with Student Vote and other school-based electoral education programs.
Prof. Williams said she hopes the letter will raise public awareness about the proposed overhaul of Canada's electoral law.