The Official Opposition NDP has launched a country-wide series of town-hall meetings on proposed election law changes after the Conservative government rebuffed a request for similar hearings.
Beginning this week, New Democratic Party MPs will fan out to speak about Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act, which they say would disenfranchise thousands of voters and favour the Conservatives in campaigns.
The NDP has tried to slow passage of the bill and force hearings, at one point triggering a vote in the House of Commons on a cross-country tour for the committee that is reviewing C-23. Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre has said a tour would be a "costly circus," and the Conservatives voted down the NDP motion on Feb. 25.
The government says the bill would rein in voter fraud, refocus Elections Canada on advertising the basics of voting and update campaign finance laws.
An Angus Reid poll published last month showed Canadians are more likely to oppose C-23 when they know its details – a factor in the NDP strategy to slow its progress, democratic reform critic Craig Scott said.
"By deciding to go so hard in our opposition early, we knew we had to wait this out for three weeks before the public at large became aware of how bad this is," he said in an interview on Tuesday.
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has said the bill could disenfranchise voters, skew the playing field, be partly unenforceable and limit his powers. More than 150 academics signed an open letter this week saying the bill would harm democracy in Canada.
Mr. Scott will speak at three of the eight meetings scheduled so far, and said he has four main objections.
His first is that the bill would, in effect, suppress election day turnout by eliminating the option of having someone vouch for a person who does not have proper identification, and eliminating use of the voter information card as a corroborating piece of identification. "Vouching is the ultimate safeguard. If you remove that, frankly, you're in unconstitutional territory," Mr. Scott said.
Mr. Poilievre has said vouching and the information cards are too vulnerable to fraud and that 39 forms of identification are accepted. "It's hard to imagine someone would not have any of those forms of ID," he said last week. Mr. Mayrand has said vouching is used often by people who can prove who they are, but not their current address.
Secondly, Mr. Scott says banning Elections Canada from running voter turnout campaigns would "encourage voter apathy." Mr. Poilievre says the agency has failed to boost turnout and political parties should have that task. Mr. Scott argues Elections Canada has a fundamental role in spurring turnout. "That's crucial. We have no idea if the voting rate would be even less without those initiatives," he said.
Mr. Scott says his third objection is the bill would not give Elections Canada more power to investigate political parties or compel testimony, and is aimed instead at preventing individual voter fraud.
Finally, Mr. Scott fears the bill would open the door to unlimited Conservative robo-calling to supporters by exempting fundraising calls to some previous donors from election spending limits. Mr. Mayrand has warned that particular provision would be difficult or impossible to enforce.
Overall, the changes will hurt parties other than the Conservatives, Mr. Scott says. "It's designed, purpose built, for the Conservative Party," he said of the bill.
The cross-country hearings begin on Thursday in Victoria, and continue next week in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Regina, Winnipeg, Dartmouth, N.S., and Gatineau, Que. Bill C-23 is in second-reading, and parliament is on break until later this month.