Everything you need to know about the Fair Elections Act

Editor’s Note: The Globe and Mail has put together an amazingly thorough and detailed yet straightforward backgrounder on the Fair Elections Act.  It addresses almost everything you need to know to understand the debate on this issue.  CARP will be making a Committee presentation on the Fair Elections Act and we will make this presentation available shortly thereafter.  In the meantime, this Globe and Mail article/backgrounder provides an in-depth look at the issues being debated, examines the arguments that are being made and explains who is making them.   The disproportionate impact this may have on certain minority groups and on seniors need to be explored more attentively.

One of many examples arises when reviewing  the use of voter information cards as proof of residence.  The figures that are available are from the pilot project that tested the cards in the 2011 general election.    The data proves very telling and suggests that seniors could be the most reliant on voter information cards, as the Hill Times explains:

“A total of 906,518 electors resided in the poll divisions that were covered by the pilot project;71,578 on First Nation reserves, 805,018 in senior citizen homes and care facilities and 29,922 students.

A breakdown of the pilot project voting populations the elections agency provided to The Hill Times shows 32,210 aboriginal electors cast ballots, or 45 per cent of those eligible to vote, and that 36 per cent of those who voted, 11,600, used the voter information card as proof of residence.  Of the student populations that were included in the pilot project, an estimated 11,370, or 38 per cent, turned out to vote and of those 7,000 used the voter information card as proof of residence.

The senior citizens had the highest voter turnout, with 65 per cent casting ballots. Of those, 73 per cent, or 382,000 electors, used the voter information card as proof of address.”

The elimination of voter information cards as a valid proof of residence only constitutes one of many changes that will sweep through the electoral system if this bill passes.  Some of the other proposals would have a monumental impact on the way Canadians exercise one of their most fundamental democratic rights.


Everything you need to know about the Fair Elections Act

Canadas 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. Its a big deal, so heres your crash course.

What is the Fair Elections Act?

Essentially, it 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.

This article was published by The Globe and Mail on March 25th, 2014.  They have many other articles on the Fair Elections Act – to see this article and other related articles on their website, please click here

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 the Chief Electoral Officers more detailed objections here. But well give you the short version.


1. Vouching

Under the current rules, vouching is the sort of voter-ID catch-all. If you don’t have the proper ID, someone can vouch for you so you can still vote. 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 its 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. Axing these two options essentially raises the bar on whats 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.


2. Campaign finance

Candidates face limits on what they can spend. This bill would exempt one important thing from those limits fundraising calls to anyone who has donated $20 or more in the previous five years. Critics call it a new loophole. For instance, the cost of calls to past supporters urging them to support a party again could theoretically be exempted from spending limits if, at some point during the call, a party asks for a donation. This exemption would, presumably, benefit the party with the most donors and the most robust database. At the moment, that appears to be the Conservatives.


Mr. Poilievre argues fundraising is different from campaigning and that party donors are the most earnest supporters, and therefore don’t often need to be called and reminded to vote. The NDP similarly exempted fundraising costs from spending limits in their leadership race, a point frequently cited by Mr. Poilievre. The NDP say its comparing apples to oranges. There is a huge difference between an internal party race and the federal election, NDP National Director Nathan Rotman said.


3. The Chief Electoral Officer

The head of Elections Canada is targeted. First, the bill limits what he can say publicly a gag order, critics say though Mr. Poilievre has already indicated they will amend this clause.

Critically, the CEO and Elections Canada also wont be allowed to publicly encourage citizens to vote as they have with ad campaigns in previous elections but only give the technical information about where and how to vote. The Conservatives argue its up to political parties to drive voter turnout. Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley told a committee the changes must not go through. If it does, Canadians will lose their trust and confidence in our elections, he told a committee.

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. Elections Canada’s current Chief Electoral Officer has warned this provision needs rules guaranteeing he and the Commissioner can still share information.

The former Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Kingsley, said the change is a neutral one, because of a previous change that already requires the DPP to be involved. “To me, its 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.

Elections Canada has also frequently asked for the power to seek a court order to force people to co-operate with investigations, a power held in other jurisdictions. This bill doesn’t offer that in other words, in trying to tackle fraud, it doesn’t do what Elections Canada has long asked for to combat fraud.

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. Its 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.

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. Under the bill, the party that won the most votes in a previous election will also be able to recommend people to act as central poll supervisor, a person in charge of a particular polling location. The Chief Electoral Officer says doing so will compromise the non-partisan nature of that role. The NWT Chief Electoral Officer also focused on this provision, saying all election officers including central poll supervisors be appointed by Elections Canada without any influence by a registered political party.


8. Donation limits

Theyre 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 up to one year. It will also require dates and scripts of live calls to be kept for a year. 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 would 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. Democracy Watch warns it would likely be struck down by a court, but would first put a chill on groups hoping to advertise ahead of the 2015 election, including those intent on advertising against the Conservatives.

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. Canada’s former chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, 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 bills tabling triggered filibustering and early polls have shown that the more people know about it, the less they like it (see this one and this one). The Tories tried to push the act quickly through the House of Commons, suggesting they were in no mood to debate the changes. The NDP tried to force cross-country tours for the committee considering the bill, which was rejected. The NDP have since done their own.

So why is it a big deal?

The bill has 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.

When would this take effect?

Some of it would kick in as soon as its passed, and certainly before the next election, expected in late 2015.

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?

Not yet. Its in committee after passing second reading. Check on its status here.