Strict new voting rules make it so hard for some Canadians to cast a ballot that the public may lose faith in the legitimacy of the upcoming federal election, a lawyer for two advocacy groups argued Thursday.
Tens of thousands of eligible voters could be turned away at the polls, according to the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students. So the two groups have asked the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to grant an interim injunction against one aspect of the Fair Elections Act, allowing voters to use the voter information cards they receive in the mail as valid ID at the polls.
The groups say the cards, which are no longer accepted as ID in the name of preventing fraud, would allow many people who might have trouble presenting other acceptable ID – including students, aboriginals, elderly people living in care homes and the homeless – to vote this fall.
Lawyers for the government, which passed the Fair Elections Act last year, will make their arguments on Friday.
Failing to relax the rules would cause irreparable harm, said lawyer Steven Shrybman. Many people would be denied their right to vote, but the damage would go beyond that, he said.
"Public confidence in the outcome of the election may hang in the balance," Mr. Shrybman said.
There are no hard numbers on how many Canadians would be unable to come up with the ID mandated by the Fair Elections Act, which requires government-issued photo ID with proof of address.
About four million Canadians do not have a driver's licence, which is the only piece of government ID that tends to include a name, photo and address. Without that, registered voters must combine ID with a utility bill or other acceptable mail that shows their address.
Mr. Shrybman asked Justice David Stinson to imagine several university students living together off campus. "Only one of you is on the lease and gets a utility bill," he said. "You may not have a licence."
In the 2011 election, Elections Canada ran a pilot program that mailed voter information cards to about 900,000 people. About 400,000 used the cards as official ID on election day. Elections Canada considered the program a success and planned to offer the option to all Canadians in the upcoming election, according to a factum from the Chief Electoral Officer that was presented to the court.
"We know that they want it back and we know they would like to extend it," said Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians. "So we're kind of … speaking on behalf of what we believe the Chief Electoral Officer wanted all along."
In the last election, 14 highly contested ridings had a combined margin of victory of just 6,200 votes, Ms. Barlow said, so tens of thousands of voters can affect the outcome of an election.
"This is not small numbers we're looking at," she said. "They really can impact the whole election."
In the past, registered voters with acceptable ID could vouch for other voters' identities and addresses as a last resort, but the act limited that option, as well.
Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister responsible for democratic reform, said in an e-mail there are plenty of ID options for voters. "With the Fair Elections Act, Canadians can choose from 39 authorized forms of ID when voting," he said. "These easily attainable documents range from Canadian passports and birth certificates to student ID cards, credit or debit cards, and utility bills or bank statements."
The court has a deadline of July 20 for its decision.
But even if the injunction is granted, it's unclear whether Elections Canada will have time to print and mail voter information cards across the country in time for the election. There are partially printed cards in four storage locations across Canada, and they would need to be altered with a second printing, or possibly printed from scratch, according to the agency's factum.
The government has argued that voting rules needed to be tightened to prevent voter fraud. On Thursday, Mr. Shrybman said there is very little evidence of intentional fraud.
Until 2007, Canadians who were on the list of electors were not required to show ID at the polls – they could simply state their name and address to be provided with a ballot.
The Harper government brought in voter ID rules that year, then toughened them further with the Fair Elections Act.
With files from the Canadian Press