Linda Frum is a Conservative Senator.
"Elections Canada should not have a vested interest in recording a high voter turnout. That's a conflict."
I tweeted those words last week. They set off a Twitter storm that may yet contribute to a better understanding of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government's effort to enhance the integrity of Canada's voting system with the implementation of Bill C-23.
Here's the institutional conflict of interest to which I pointed:
Elections Canada is a bureaucracy with two missions: to ensure the integrity of the voting process and also to promote voter turnout. Those two missions are contradictory. You want the biggest vote total? Accept every ballot. You want to eliminate voter fraud? Eliminating improper ballots may reduce vote totals.
In attempting to achieve a balance between these two different missions, the evidence suggests that Elections Canada has favoured its turnout goals over preserving the integrity of the process.
Elections expert Harry Neufeld – no supporter of the Harper government's proposed reforms – nevertheless reported that "some 11.8 per cent of all registration activity on Election Day in May, 2011, showed serious errors, according to the national audit undertaken for this review. That … equals 114,693 voters potentially having the validity of their votes put in question." How serious are those irregularities? We don't know, because Elections Canada does not investigate.
Consider the most problematic of all forms of voting: where the voter has no identification. In those cases, current law allows an acquaintance, friend or relative of the voter to "vouch for" that person's right to vote. The voter in question may be a legitimate voter who genuinely lacks ID. The voter may be a visiting relative who isn't entitled to vote in that district – or even to vote in Canada at all. Or the voter may be valid – but have already used their ID to vote once that day and is now lining up without ID to do it a second time.
How prevalent are such problems? Until 2012, Elections Canada had never conducted any kind of audit on vouched ballots. Yet when Mr. Neufeld investigated the 2011 election, he found that of the 120,000 vouched-for ballots cast, 42 per cent had serious errors. Every one was counted toward the final result.
Everyday experience exposes problems in the way Canadians vote. My colleague Denise Batters told the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee that in one election, she received five voter information cards: one each for her and her husband; one for her under her maiden name; and two for previous residents of her address.
Elections Canada would like to make these cards acceptable voter ID, even though Elections Canada also acknowledges that in 2011, one in six voters was not correctly registered on the National Register of Electors. Accurate voter registration is the most difficult task of a fair election. Canada is doing that job less and less well.
In the debate over Bill C-23, we repeatedly hear the words: "This is Canada, and Canadians don't commit fraud." It would be more accurate to say, "Elections Canada isn't very interested in voter fraud – and we therefore don't know whether Canadians commit fraud or not."
Elections Canada faces a familiar bureaucratic dilemma. In 2000, the Elections Act was amended to add voter turnout to Elections Canada's roster of responsibilities. It hasn't gone well. In 1988, 75 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot. In 2011, 61 per cent did.
Under these embarrassing circumstances, it is understandable that Elections Canada might hesitate to implement reforms that might reduce the vote total even further.
In other areas of government, we recognize that when agency missions may conflict, those missions should be housed in different organizations. We have one agency to promote the sale of farm products – and another to ensure food safety. We have one agency to operate nuclear power plants – and another to inspect them. It is undoubtedly for this reason that Britain's all-party committee for standards in public life also recommended, in 2007, that their electoral commission be relieved of its voter turnout responsibilities.
Yet when such a common-sense approach is proposed for elections here in Canada, there is uproar.
In the war of words over Bill C-23, opponents have hurled the ugly accusation that this government is engaged in voter suppression. The truth is quite the opposite: It is those who corrupt the voting process – and who ought to be the focus of Elections Canada enforcement – who suppress the valid votes of lawful voters.