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Editorial: Fair Elections Act makes it worse

You can’t make something better by making it worse, but that is what has happened with the Fair Elections Act, passed by the federal Conservatives last year.

You can’t make something better by making it worse, but that is what has happened with the Fair Elections Act, passed by the federal Conservatives last year.

Instead of making the voting process easier, the legislation makes it more difficult for thousands of Canadians to vote.

Among other things, the act brings in more stringent identification requirements that will mean some seniors, homeless persons, members of First Nations and students will have problems proving they are qualified to vote.

Voter-information cards, used by 400,000 Canadians at polling stations in the 2011 federal election, can no longer be used as identification. In the past, a voter’s identity could be vouched for by a neighbour, relative or friend. A person can still swear an oath to attest to the residence of a voter (as long as the voter has two pieces of ID with his or her name on it), but the person must be registered in the same polling division and can attest for only one voter.

The new act wasn’t necessary — it set out to fix a non-existent problem. Fraud at the polls is rare in Canada, says Elections Canada.

“Studies commissioned by Elections Canada demonstrate mass irregularities in the use of vouching and high rates of inaccuracy on voter-information cards,” says the government’s background information on the Fair Elections Act.

Yes, many irregularities have been found, including inaccuracies on voter-information cards, but those findings do not translate into fraud.

In justifying the need for the new legislation, the government cited a report on procedural problems written for Elections Canada by Harry Neufeld, B.C.’s former chief electoral officer.

Yet Neufeld found little evidence of voter fraud and, in fact, recommended voter-information cards be used more widely.

As the government was gearing up to pass the legislation, other prominent Canadians stepped forward to protest. They included chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand, commissioner of Canada elections Yves Côté, former federal auditor general Sheila Fraser, former Reform party leader Preston Manning and several provincial chief electoral officers.

Mayrand said elements of the Fair Elections Act were “an affront to democracy” and restricted his ability to provide information to the public, including prohibiting him from launching ad campaigns to encourage voter turnout.

Pierre Poilievre, as minister of democratic reform, countered that “political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to get out and cast their ballot than are government bureaucracies.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Political candidates do indeed encourage people to vote, but they tend to encourage them to vote a certain way. They are scarcely objective.

It should be noted that the majority of Canadians are concerned about electoral fraud, according to a survey done in 2014 by the Environics Institute and the Institute on Governance. But that concern is about the potential for “illegal manipulation” of their votes by political parties, not about individuals with fraudulent ID.

Those conducting the survey say that mistrust likely stems from the 2011 robocalls scandal, in which automated phone calls were made to prevent some Guelph, Ont., citizens from voting by falsely telling them the location of their polling stations had changed. In connection with that incident, Conservative staffer Michael Sona was found guilty of violating the Elections Act.

Voting is not a privilege like driving, for which you need to qualify — it’s a right of citizenship. By making it more difficult for some groups of people to vote, the Harper government is creating lesser classes of citizenship and violating the spirit of open democracy.

It’s possible that on rare occasions, a few individuals will vote fraudulently. A far greater risk is political parties behaving badly.