The federal government's recent overhaul of Canadian election laws is facing a Charter challenge, one alleging the changes will deny some Canadians the right to vote.
The groups behind the case argue that the Fair Elections Act, an amended version of which became law in June after the bill received widespread criticism, will suppress the vote of certain Canadians and make it difficult for some to obtain a ballot on election day.
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation.)
A legal challenge was filed Thursday in the Ontario Superior Court by the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Federation of Students and three individual electors. They are challenging the law under section three of the Charter and Rights of Freedoms, which guarantees citizens the right to vote, and section 15, which says every individual is equal before and under the law. "We believe [the bill] will disproportionately impact disadvantaged groups," lawyer Steven Shrybman, who will argue the case, told a news conference Thursday.
"We want to prevent the provisions from going into effect, because the results of that will be to actually prevent people from voting in the next federal election. That's a very serious problem and one we want to avert," Mr. Shrybman added.
The case is also targeting provisions in the bill that limit what Elections Canada can say publicly, including in advertising – it's no longer going to be permitted to run ads designed to boost voter turnout, only those giving the basics of when, where and how to vote. The groups argue those provisions will lead to people being turned away from polls on election day because they are unaware of changes. The legal case also takes issue with the law's moving of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, an investigator, from Elections Canada into a different office.
The next federal election is scheduled for the fall of 2015. Mr. Shrybman said he hopes the case will reach court this year and that he will "have a decision from the court long in advance of the next election" if it proceeds as scheduled.
Mr. Shrybman said the group "expect[s] to succeed" with its case, then stopped and said he was "optimistic" with the arguments. "If we succeed in persuading the court of our position, then it will be up to the federal government to determine whether it wants to appeal," he said.
The minister who spearheaded the bill, Pierre Poilievre, doesn't think it will get that far, saying in a written statement that he believes the bill would withstand a legal challenge.
"The Fair Elections Act is common sense. It is reasonable and Canadians agree. The bill has been widely supported by the Canadian people, based on the principle of fairness and universal suffrage," the statement said. "…Our government has considered the legality of the Fair Elections Act and I am convinced the proposal is constitutionally compliant."
The Fair Elections Act, which was known as Bill C-23 while in Parliament, makes a series of changes to Canadian law. Its foremost change – the one being targeted by the legal challenge – is raising ID requirements for voting. Voters will need to prove both identity and a current address, and both "vouching" – a failsafe way to get a ballot by having someone else vouch for you – and use of the voter information card, which was used in some cases to corroborate address, are being phased out. Vouching was used by about 120,000 voters in the last election, while another 400,000 used the voter information card as ID.
The government is instead introducing an oath system, which is akin to vouching but more limited in scope and can be used to vouch for address only. The changes are expected to affect people without a fixed address and students, critics have said, particularly those studying away from home. "This Act constructs additional barriers between young Canadians and their right to vote," Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, said in a written statement.