The Fair Elections Act, which we named the worst legislation of 2014, was one of the low points of Stephen Harper's government. It was a partisan attack on Canada's election rules that ignored fact, mocked expertise and was defended in the House of Commons in an unctuous performance by Pierre Poilievre, Mr. Harper's point man on the legislation.
So fierce was the backlash – from the opposition, the Senate and a wide cross-section of the Canadian public – that, before the bill passed, the Harper government backed down and struck some of the most offensive proposals from the law.
But not all. Now the Trudeau government plans to finish the job. Bill C-33 proposes seven reforms that would undo the remaining irritants that were introduced into the Canada Elections Act by the unlamented Fair Elections Act.
Actually, there are six reforms. The Liberals are having Canadians on when Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, says Bill C-33 will "restore vouching."
The Harper government tried to get rid of the convention whereby one qualified elector at a polling station can vouch for the residence and identity of another who may be lacking ID. In the end, the Conservatives removed the word "vouching" from the Elections Act, probably as a face-saving measure, but kept the practice.
Here's an instance of how the Tories revised the law: "No elector shall attest to the residence of more than one elector." And here is how the Liberals want to put it: "No elector shall vouch for more than one elector." The Liberals have struck a blow for synonyms with that one, but not really for democracy.
The other changes in C-33 are real and mostly worthwhile. Canadians will once again be able to use the voter information card, which Elections Canada mails to all known residences, as ID at polling stations. The Harper government removed that right on the specious grounds of preventing voter fraud.
Given a lack of examples of voter information cards being used to commit voter fraud, it was feeble reasoning.
This Harper government gambit, along with its failed attempt to end vouching, raised suspicions that these were voter suppression measures, aimed at students, indigenous people and the elderly, who may change address more often than other Canadians. Ms. Monsef says 172,000 Canadians didn't vote in the 2015 general election because they believed they lacked proper ID, based on a Statistics Canada poll done in 2016.
That is why it's good that Bill C-33 will give back to the Chief Electoral Officer the power to promote voting through educational programs aimed at everyone, and not just at schoolchildren, as the Harper reform inexplicably required.
Promoting voting is a fitting role for the neutral body that oversees elections. What could it possibly hurt to urge people to vote, and to make clear to them what their rights are? The proposal in Bill C-33 to create a national register of "future electors" – Canadians aged 14-17 – may make it more likely that young people vote once they turn 18. It is worth noting that, at the moment, higher youth turnout benefits the Liberals, but there's no reason that will always be the case.
Other parts of Bill C-33 are more neutral in their effect. One reform will move the Commissioner of Canada Elections back under the aegis of the Chief Electoral Officer. The Commissioner investigates voter fraud and overspending by political parties. The Harper government moved that job into the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which meant that oversight fell to the attorney-general and not, ultimately, to Parliament.
Some experts saw this as a troubling politicization of the Commissioner's role; others felt it made no difference. The Liberals were among the former and so they are doing something about it.
The Liberals also agreed with critics who said it was unfair to limit the voting rights of expatriate Canadians. The current law says expats can only vote within five years of leaving Canada and must have the stated intention of returning home. Bill C-33 will repeal those restrictions. We never had a problem with the old rule, which protected against representation without taxation. But this does count as a promise kept for the Trudeau government.
Finally, there is one proposed reform that needs careful attention. The government calls it "cleaning up the national register of electors," something no one would argue with in principle. But the related legislation involves a lot of sharing of information from Revenue Canada and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration with Elections Canada.
Perhaps there is no harm in this. But with privacy such a concern today, and with all the outcry caused by clauses in last year's Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-51) allowing unhindered sharing of information among departments, this is something the Trudeau government ought to be wary of, at least for the sake of consistency.