Last year, an Ontario Superior Court judge struck down a rule that barred citizens living abroad for more than five years from voting in federal elections. The government has rightly appealed that decision, while also introducing legislation that will enshrine expats' voting rights, but with a twist. Expats will get to vote – it will just be really, really hard.
So hard, in fact, that many of the 2.8 million expats around the globe may well not bother. Others will try but won't be able to meet the onerous new requirements in Bill C-50.
Under the bill, currently in committee after second reading, Elections Canada will eliminate the international register of electors, the long-established list of expat Canadians eligible to vote federally. In future, expats will have to re-register for each election, and can only do so after the writ is dropped.
That means an overseas Canadian would have about 36 days, the minimum length of an election campaign, to write to Elections Canada to request a ballot, wait while officials examine the extensive paperwork the bill requires, receive a ballot in the mail, make their mark, and then return the ballot by mail.
Critics say many long-time expats won't be able to produce the new documentation required, which includes proof of the voter's last Canadian address provided by a Canadian company or government office. The alternative is to find someone in the voter's last riding who will vouch that the person in question once lived there – a time-consuming process.
The Harper government says the goal of the new rules is to prevent voter fraud, the same canard that it used to justify the Fair Elections Act. There are widespread concerns that as many as 400,000 eligible voters will be unable to cast a ballot in the fall election because of the Fair Elections Act. If Bill C-50 is adopted before Parliament is dissolved, the franchise of thousands of expats could also be compromised.
We are not convinced that the right to vote extends to Canadian who have chosen to live outside the country for decades, or even a lifetime. The government was right to appeal, and we hope a higher court will side with it. But in the interim, that lower court's decision has to be respected. The bill should not be recognizing a right with one hand, while effectively taking it away with the other.