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Tories open to amending elections bill, except for voter ID requirement

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre defended the Fair Elections Act Tuesday evening as a ‘common sense bill.’

FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

The final version of the government's electoral reform bill will require all voters to show identification before they vote, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre pledged, adding the Conservatives are nonetheless open to other changes.

Speaking to an Economic Club of Canada audience in Ottawa on Thursday, the minister addressed one of the most hotly debated aspects of the proposed Fair Elections Act, saying average Canadians believe it is "common sense" to require that voters present ID – essentially, that vouching isn't good for democracy.

"We are open to improvements to this bill, and very soon the government will make clear which amendments it will support," Mr. Poilievre told the luncheon guests. "But let me be clear on this point: The Fair Elections Act, in its final form, will require every single voter produce ID showing who they are before they vote."

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(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation.)

His talk, billed 'Discussing the Facts in the Fair Elections Act,' comes after another headline-grabbing week for the minister and his reform bill, with some 465 academics collectively calling for the government to withdraw the act and amid revelations that the RCMP are investigating a threatening letter sent to Mr. Poilievre's home. It also comes on the heels of an Angus Reid poll that found support for the act is highest among those who don't know much about it.

The Conservatives' proposed Fair Elections Act would overhaul how Canadians vote in federal elections, increase donation limits and change how Elections Canada investigates fraud and communicates with the public. The Harper government says the measures crack down on voter fraud and preserve the integrity of elections, but experts – and even some Conservative senators – are recommending significant changes.

"What is all the fuss about?" Mr. Poilievre asked the Economic Club audience, with dozens of protesters gathered outside the venue, carrying signs that reading Stop the Unfair Elections Act. "What it really comes down to is a disagreement over ID. The opposition believes we should allow people to vote without even showing a shred of identification. Canadians disagree."

Though the ID requirement was among the concerns outlined in the open letter signed by the 465 university professors Wednesday, there were other "glaring defects," as they put it. The letter identified four objections to the bill: failure to provide the Commissioner of Elections the power to compel witness testimony when investigating electoral fraud; "partisan" appointment of election-poll supervisors; a "gag" on Elections Canada's efforts to encourage voter turnout; and the elimination of vouching as a "safeguard of the constitutional right to vote."

There is no photo ID requirement for voting in Canada, Mr. Poilievre noted in his speech, pointing out that a voter can present a utility bill or a letter from a student residence, homeless shelter or seniors home. The Fair Elections Act proposes to eliminate the practice of vouching, in which a properly identified voter can vouch for the identity of someone lacking complete ID. At the same time, the bill will end the limited use of voter information cards, issued by Elections Canada, as proof of residency.

The current and former chief electoral officers of Elections Canada say there is no evidence of voter fraud in the vouching process, as does Harry Neufeld, the former B.C. elections officer whose report on voting irregularities in the 2011 election has been used as the backstop for the Conservative reforms.

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The debate around the electoral reform bill has been heated since Mr. Poilievre introduced it in February: a Senate committee has asked for nine amendments, First Nations advocates voiced concern the elimination of vouching would disenfranchise aboriginal voters, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has pledged to repeal the act if elected, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has attacked the bill in Question Period, and Conservative parliamentarians have questioned the credibility of Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and former auditor-general Sheila Fraser.

Mr. Poilievre took note of the media coverage regarding the elections bill, saying "If you've been following the news, you'd think that every element is controversial." Not so, he said.

"In fact, much of the bill has broad consensus," he told the audience, arguing that the bill protects voters from rogue calls and closes loopholes to "big money," including donations left in people's wills. "One deceased donor left the NDP $210,000. That is 200 times over the donation limit, and is perfectly legal. So while dead people cannot vote, they can make larger donations than the living are allowed to make.

Mr. Poilievre didn't signal which "improvements" the government might make to the bill, but the Senate committee offered suggested amendments in its April 15 report. The recommendations included raising the required time that robocall firms must keep certain records for investigators, removing a proposed expense exemption and preserving Elections Canada's relationship with Student Vote and other school-based electoral education programs.

Before delivering his Economic Club remarks, Mr. Poilievre also responded to Thursday's news that the commissioner of elections, Yves Cote, found there is not enough evidence concerning fraudulent robocalls during the 2011 election to warrant charges by the federal public prosecutor.

"We said from the very beginning the Conservatives ran an honest and ethical campaign in the last election," the minister told reporters. "Now, we have a report from a commissioner who has all the powers of the police authority to conduct an investigation. There is no evidence to suggest any of the false allegations had any merit."

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