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Tories' 'Fair Elections Act' would disenfranchise voters, chief electoral officer warns

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand arrives at a Commons house affairs committee hearing on Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 6, 2014.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's Chief Electoral Officer is warning the Conservative government's proposed election law changes will disenfranchise voters, give political parties advantages over others, hand them too much information, hinder the power of investigators and muzzle what he can say publicly.

Marc Mayrand made the comments to a parliamentary committee Thursday as the government's "Fair Elections Act" continues its way through the House of Commons – an appearance that came only as part of a deal to end an opposition filibuster meant to slow the bill's progress.

The appearance was also delayed when the government, after earlier striking the deal, on Thursday called a pair of votes in the middle of Mr. Mayrand's 90-minute scheduled window of testimony, later promising he'd still get the same amount of time but triggering accusations they were reneging on a deal.

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In his comments, Mr. Mayrand took issue, in particular, with changes that would eliminate vouching – where one person swears to another's identity at a voting booth – and ban the use of voter information cards as a form of identification.

Vouching is used often by people who can prove who they are but not where they live, Mr. Mayrand said, including seniors, students and First Nations voters. An estimated 120,000 of Canada's approximately 24 million eligible electors used the vouching system to vote in 2011.

"We can expect a significant proportion of them would not be able to vote under the rules proposed," Mr. Mayrand told the committee. The government has said vouching is too vulnerable to fraud, a notion Mr. Mayrand rejected – saying irregularities in vouching cases have not been found to be fraud. In one case, he cited a nursing home where the nurse vouched for the identity of residents who did not have valid identification – strictly speaking, that was against the rules, Mr. Mayrand says, but there was no evidence the elderly residents weren't eligible to vote.

"There is no evidence tying these errors with ineligible electors being allowed to vote," he said, later adding: "It is essential to understand that the main challenge for our electoral democracy is not voter fraud, but voter participation. I do not believe that if we eliminate vouching and the [information card] as a proof of address, we will have in any way improved the integrity of the voting process. However, we will have taken away the ability of many qualified electors to vote."

Conservative MP Scott Reid, in questioning Mr. Mayrand, said voter information cards are too often incorrect. "I submit that makes them highly unreliable," he said. Mr. Mayrand said they're the most accurate of any identifying documents and nonetheless still need to be presented with a second piece of identification. Under the new rules, they won't count.

"If people were required to provide proper ID, as opposed to vouching, the potential for fraud would be lessened. I think that's quite obvious," Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski said.

If people need vouching and can't come up with acceptable identification, "I would suggest they probably weren't planning to vote in the first place," Mr. Lukiwski said. Mr. Mayrand replied: "For some electors, that means they won't be able to vote."

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The bill would move the Commissioner of Canada Elections – an investigator – out of Elections Canada and into the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. "It is not clear to me how this last structural change can improve the commissioner's work," he said.

The bill would also only let the commissioner issue reports through the Director, a cabinet-appointed position. Both the commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer would be "severely limited" in what they can say publicly, Mr. Mayrand said, adding he wouldn't even be able to say publicly if he'd found the subject of an investigation to be innocent. "I am unaware of any democracy in which such limitations are imposed on the electoral agency," Mr. Mayrand said later.

Mr. Mayrand said the bill does have some valuable improvements to make the rules simpler, but warned changes around leadership campaign financing, and loans to candidates, remain flawed and "an empty shell."

Mr. Mayrand went on to say the bill's proposal to exclude fundraising – from anyone who has given a party $20 in the past five years – from election expenses could "compromise the level playing field" between the political parties. "It takes little imagination to understand that other partisan communications can be dressed up as fundraisers," he said, adding it would also be "difficult if not impossible" to enforce.

He didn't say which party would benefit, but the governing Conservatives regularly raise the most money and are said to have the most robust and complex database of supporters.

He noted the bill does nothing to require political parties to provide receipts in order to get a refund for eligible expenses from Elections Canada. All provinces require receipts, Mr. Mayrand said.

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The bill also does not give the Chief Electoral Officer the power to force people to co-operate with investigations, a power he sought and one he said many agencies in Canada have. "It's getting more and more common [for people to not co-operate]," Mr. Mayrand said. "It's well-known now. People increasingly refuse to collaborate with investigators."

Conservative MP Dave MacKenzie, a former police officer himself, responded by saying "police officers don't have that power… do you not think there's something missing in the picture here?"

He also said the bill will provide political parties with a list of who voted and who didn't – a list he says they should not be permitted to see.

Mr. Mayrand gave the committee a 12-page chart of changes he'd like to see. They include reversing restrictions on what he can say publicly and a requirement he consult the Treasury Board president – a cabinet minister – for approval to bring in outside help. He said voter information cards should be accepted as a form of ID, in combination with another piece of ID, contrary to the proposed law. He said vouching should still be allowed and that candidates shouldn't be allowed to receive a list of which electors voted and which did not, among other proposals.

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