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Politics Tories' bill strips Elections Canada of power to promote voter turnout

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand is shown in Ottawa on March 29, 2012.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government is stripping Elections Canada of its authority to encourage Canadians to vote in federal ballots under changes to the agency's mandate.

Legislation tabled this week sets out restrictions on what information the chief electoral officer can provide the public, limiting it to five matter-of-fact topics related to how to vote or become a candidate.

The Conservative bill will remove parts of Section 18 of the Elections Act that give the chief electoral officer the authority to provide the public with information on "the democratic right to vote" and to "make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly to those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights."

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Voter turnout in the 2011 federal election – slightly more than 61 per cent of eligible voters – was among the lowest in this country's history.

Elections Canada has put increasing effort into encouraging voting – running ad campaigns that reminded Canadians of their democratic rights. Its annual budget for "electoral engagement" is about $8.5-million.

Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister for democratic reform, said the government doesn't believe Elections Canada has a role to play in boosting voting. "Political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to get out and cast their ballot than our government bureaucracies," he told the Commons on Wednesday.

Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey, director of communications for Mr. Poilievre, said declining turnout in recent years is an indication that Elections Canada wasn't having much success anyway.

"The facts show Elections Canada's campaigns are not working. Elections Canada needs to get back to basics," Ms. Renaud-Mattey said.

"Elections Canada will focus on its administrative role. This means running elections and letting electors know when, where and what ID to bring to vote."

The government announced Tuesday it would overhaul the rules that govern how Canadians vote and run for office – cracking down on rogue robocalls that have embarrassed the Conservatives and increasing by 25 per cent the maximum allowable contributions to parties.

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The government unveiled legislation that will also break up Elections Canada by stripping the agency of its role in investigating and prosecuting electoral wrongdoing. This function will be moved to the lower-profile office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, leaving Elections Canada with only one task: administering federal ballots.

Craig Scott, the NDP critic for democratic reform, said he thinks the Conservatives are removing Election Canada's mandate to encourage voting, particularly among disadvantaged groups, because it will help their party.

"It tells me they want to subordinate the general health of democracy, and encouraging people to vote, to the competitive politics of parties competing for votes – where they think they can do better than if people generally are encouraged to go vote," Mr. Scott said.

The Conservative government also came under fire for another election-law change that would exempt fundraising costs from campaign expenses – as long as parties are calling people who have donated within the last five years. "There are firm limits on what parties can spend during a campaign. They should not have to use up that limit just to raise that money in the first place," Ms. Renaud-Mattey said.

Ms. Renaud-Mattey said it's up to political parties to motivate voters.

"Aspiring candidates and parties – and not government officials – have a duty to reach out to voters, inspire them and give them something worth voting for."

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