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Canada's election laws are set to change. A major government bill, the Fair Elections Act, is working its way through the House of Commons but has proven controversial. It's a big deal, so here's your crash course.

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What is the Fair Elections Act?

Essentially, Bill C-23 changes the rules for voters, candidates, parties and the people whose job it is to make sure elections are fair. Ottawa says it will boost penalties for offences, reduce voter fraud and empower political parties, as opposed to Elections Canada, to drive voter turnout. For some voters, it means it'll be harder to cast a ballot – a voter will no longer be able to have someone vouch for his or her identity, a system the government argues is too vulnerable to fraud. Political parties will also get an amalgamated list showing if you voted or not, but not who you voted for, while Elections Canada will no longer be able to run advertising campaigns encouraging people to vote.

Who's behind it?

Pierre Poilievre – Canada’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform and, at 34, among the youngest faces in cabinet. Mr. Poilievre has tirelessly stumped for the bill in interviews and in the House of Commons. His go-to line is that the bill gives investigators a “sharper teeth, longer reach and a freer hand.” Many of the changes are meant to reduce fraud and rein in Elections Canada, which he says has failed to boost voter turnout.

What are the changes?

There are a lot. If you have time on your hands and a knack for legalese, you can read the bill for yourself here and look at some of Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s more detailed objections here and here. But we’ll give you the (kind of) short version.
The Globe and Mail

1. Vouching

Under the current rules, “vouching” is the sort of voter-ID catch-all. If you don’t have the proper ID, a voter in your polling area can vouch for you so you can still cast a ballot. The list of ways to vote is here. Yes, it raises a question: “Who doesn’t have any ID?” Roughly 120,000 voters in 2011 didn’t, or about 1 per cent of voters. The Chief Electoral Officer says it’s often a case of someone who can prove their identity but not their current address, specifically – such as a student or someone who has moved. The bill also eliminates using a voter information card (the thing you get in the mail saying where to vote) as a way to corroborate where you live, which about 400,000 people did in 2011. Axing these two options essentially raises the bar on what’s required to cast a ballot, though an extra day of advance voting is being added. Both the current and former chief electoral officer have called, unequivocally, for vouching to be kept, as have provincial and territorial counterparts.

The chief electoral officer of Ontario, which doesn’t have vouching but does allows use of the voter card, has said it’s best to have one if not the other.

This proved to be a lightning rod for controversy, and is one of the areas where the Conservatives (kind of) backed down. They’ll still axe vouching but will introduce an oath system instead – a voter who has ID, but can’t prove a current address, can sign an oath to where to they live. If another valid voter signs a second oath, essentially backing up the first voter’s address, the first voter is given a ballot. The NDP and Liberals supported the amendment, but more because it restored at least something – they warn people could still be turned away on voting day.

2. Campaign finance

Candidates face limits on what they can spend. This bill proposed to exempt one important thing from those limits – fundraising calls to anyone who had donated $20 or more in the previous five years. Critics called it a new loophole that would be “difficult if not impossible” to enforce. Among those calling for this proposal to be abandoned was a Conservative-dominated Senate committee that studied the bill. Mr. Poilievre eventually relented, and the Tories announced on April 25 they’d scrap the proposal.

3. The Chief Electoral Officer

The head of Elections Canada is targeted, but outcry led the Tories to back off the wording a bit. The bill nonetheless limits what the Chief Electoral Officer can say, or “provide to the public,” – a gag order, critics say.

Government emphatically rejects that, but the bill still limits the Chief Electoral Officer’s powers, if not his personal freedom of speech. The bill limits what advertisements the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada can run – ads saying where, when and how to vote will be OK, but ads actually encouraging people to vote will not.

It’s not just ads being limited. Several observers warned Elections Canada programming aimed at boosting civic literacy would also be cut, because it’s not within the bill’s new, strict mandate for the CEO. The government responded with an amendment guaranteeing programs aimed at primary and secondary school students, such as Student Vote, can continue; it does not make the same guarantee for adults.

So, in short, the Chief Electoral Officer can still say what he wants, but his agency now is having its hand forced when it comes to ads and programs. It’ll mean no ads from Elections Canada encouraging people – or groups with particularly low voter turnout – to cast a ballot. And it will apparently spell the end to some civic literacy initiatives, which critics pan as short-sighted at a time of low voter turnout.

Under the bill, the CEO will now be appointed to a single 10-year term. Until now, a CEO has, once appointed, been eligible to serve until age 65. The current CEO, Marc Mayrand, still will be, and is therefore due to retire in 2018.

4. The Commissioner of Canada Elections

Essentially the elections cop, the commissioner investigates people for shady campaigning, though has been criticized as ineffective by watchdogs. The bill will move the commissioner out of Elections Canada and into the officer of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The current commissioner, Yves Côté, said the move is “not a step in the right direction," he said, adding he had "deep concern" with a proposal to limit what he could say publicly. Mr. Côté also reiterated his previous calls for the power to compel testimony in investigations – a power the bill did not include, despite the requests. (The director is among many who say he was not consulted about the change.)

A government amendment guarantees the CEO can still share any document or information, obtained lawfully, with the commissioner, in response to complaints to the committee that the commissioner’s relocation raised privacy concerns.

Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley said the change is a neutral one, because of a previous change that already requires the DPP to be involved. “To me, it’s ballgame over on that one and the [latest] change really isn’t affecting anything,” he said.

The bill creates new offences – for impersonating a candidate or elections officials, for instance – and hikes fines for those found guilty.

5. Data of who voted

Parties will get “bingo cards” – checklists of which registered voters cast a ballot, and which didn’t. They currently can gather these piece-by-piece at each polling station, but gathering them all would require armies of volunteers and extensive co-ordination. It’s virtually impossible under current rules. This change will allow parties to further develop their databases of supporters.

6. Permission to hire

Currently, Elections Canada needs government approval to pay outside experts. This bill will require EC to seek Treasury Board approval for the hiring altogether. Northwest Territories Chief Electoral Officer David Brock said this should be abandoned, as the notion that Treasury Board might refuse such a request “muddles and undermines the basic relationship between the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada and Parliament.” The government has pressed forward with this change, voting down an opposition amendment doing away with needing the Treasury Board’s approval.

7. Poll clerks

The bill will allow local party associations – or, failing that, national parties themselves – to nominate deputy returning officers and poll clerks. (Currently, people for these positions can be nominated by the parties’ local candidates.) These are people who help oversee the vote at your local polling station. The Chief Electoral Officer warns the provision has no “operation benefit” and that waiting for nominations may not leave enough time to recruit and train proper officials.

In addition to expanding the list of people who can appoint those roles, the bill initially proposed to add in a whole new partisan appointment process. It suggested the party that won the most votes in a previous election be able to recommend people to act as central poll supervisor, a person in charge of a particular polling location. This was among the bill’s most contentious proposals and was widely criticized. The government backed down, and voted down its clauses. Political parties will not be able to recommend people to work as central poll supervisors.

The Globe and Mail

8. Donation limits

They’re going up – in most cases, from $1,200 this year to $1,500 if passed, and $25 per year after. Two changes, however, will open the door to wealthier candidates, who would be able to donate $5,000 to a campaign or up to $25,000 to a party leadership campaign, specifically. Presently, the limits for those donations are just $1,000, but that's on top of the $1,200 limit, meaning candidates can give their campaigns $2,200. Under the new rules, the limits are higher but the proposed new $1,500 general donation limit can no longer be tacked on to it.

9. Robocalls

The bill will require robo-calling firms, and people or groups (such as parties) that hire them, to keep a recording of each call, and records of when they were made, for at least three years. The bill initially suggested just one year, but the government acquiesced to call to raise that limit, including a call from Conservative senators. The Chief Electoral Officer has, however, objected to the bill failing to require companies to keep records of what numbers they call. Mr. Poilievre says that would be an invasion of privacy. The bill also creates new offences and higher fines for those caught making fraudulent calls. In short, robocalls can continue. Investigators can hear them and know when they took place – but not who they targeted. Democracy Watch, an advocacy group, argues numbers and other records should be kept for five years. The former chief electoral officer, Mr. Kingsley, suggested 10 years, telling a committee “there’s not much point in keeping it for one year.”

10. Third-party advertising

Outside groups are currently allowed $200,100 in ad spending during an election campaign period. Under the bill, they’ll now be allowed that for anything in “relation” to an election – not just during the campaign itself. This could dramatically reduce the amount groups can spend on political advertising, because the sum outside groups could spend in a campaign – as little as 36 days – would now be applied, theoretically, to a period of four years. However, the bill’s critics are divided on what impact this provision will have.

Political parties, meanwhile, face no limits on what they can spend on advertising before an election period formally begins.

This all sounds big. How's it going over?

Not well. Mr. Kingsley, the former chief electoral officer, initially gave it a grade of A-, but the response from academics and observers has otherwise largely ranged from concern to flat-out opposition. The Tories tried to push the act quickly through the House of Commons. The NDP tried to force cross-country tours for the committee considering the bill, which was rejected. The NDP have since done their own.

It all led the Conservatives to announce amendments on April 25, backing down on some of the bill’s provisions. Those changes include compromise on the elimination of vouching by allowing electors to sign an oath attesting to their residency, though they must still show proper ID; rewriting the provision that restricted what the chief electoral officer could say; removing a provision to exempt some kinds of fundraising; keeping records in a new robocalls registry for three years, instead of one; and changing the language around the hiring of central poll supervisors. The NDP say about two-thirds of the problems in the bill persist, however.

So why is it a big deal?

Aside from the fact that the bill was rewriting the rules for elections, it had a lot of critics. They include a group of Canadian academics and a group of international ones. Canadian student groups have objected to the elimination of vouching and other changes. The international scholars, in particular, warn the bill will not only dilute the strength of Canada’s democracy, but set a poor example for fledgling democracies worldwide.

Angus Reid polls

What do regular Canadians think?

Early polls suggest that the more people know about it, the less they like it (see this one from February and this one from March). An Angus Reid poll in April, for instance, found 52 per cent of those who weren’t familiar with the bill liked it, while only 41 per cent of those who were familiar with it liked it. The polls also suggest that, while few Canadians knew about the legislation at first, more are slowly hearing about it. Another poll in April, from Ipsos Reid, found only 23 per cent of Canadians were following the debate "closely" and 70 per cent were fine with the elimination of vouching.

What's going on in the Senate?

The Senate had been asked to “pre-study” the bill while it was still in the House of Commons. It produced a report unanimously recommending nine changes to the bill, though the bill hadn’t yet formally been sent to the Senate – an unusual situation. The government accepted some of the Senate’s recommended changes, such as doing away with the fundraising loophole and increasing the time robocall records must be met, though not all. However, a Senator on the committee has already said she’d expect the amended bill to pass the Senate without further changes. The amended version of the bill is now before the Senate.

When would this take effect?

Some of it would kick in as soon as it’s passed, and certainly before the next election, expected in late 2015. The government hopes to pass it by June.

What's the government's argument?

That this bill combats voter fraud, includes needed updates to campaign finance laws and, in fact, preserves the investigative power of the Commissioner. We spoke with Mr. Poilievre here. You can find their news release here. Mr. Poilievre also wrote an op-ed here.

What's The Globe's position?

The Globe editorial board – a group separate from reporters – was not impressed, and wrote a series of five editorials about the Act and even called for it to be killed altogether.

The five-part series: one, two, three, four and five.

You know, Mr. Poilievre’s right. I really like this idea. What should I do?

You could tell your MP. Find him or her here.

I don't like this bill. What should I do?

You could tell your MP. Find him or her here.

Has the bill passed yet?

Yes, the bill passed the House of Commons and Senate, and received royal assent. So it is now law. Check on how the legislation passed here.

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This explainer is written and produced by Josh Wingrove, Chris Hannay, Matt Frehner and Matt Bambach.