Nathaniel Sabanski has tried to digest the contents of the Conservative government’s Fair Elections Act, at least a fair chunk of its 300 pages.
“The bill is just so big and really hard to read,” says Sabanski, a Maple Ridge software engineer who is perplexed by the legalese.
“It’s so obvious that the government is obfuscating things that are in their own interests.”
From scholars to seniors groups, criticism of the proposed Fair Elections Act is mounting and Sabanski believes the more people hear about Bill C-23, the less they’ll like it.
Sabanski, 27, has a long list of complaints about the bill, from the elimination of vouching to increasing campaign spending limits.
“Some of the changes are just unacceptable in our democracy,” said Sabanski.
“This will have long lasting repercussions. We should be building up our democratic institutions, not breaking them down.”
Introduced in February by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, Bill C-23 is being touted as a tool to protect the fairness of federal elections.
“The Fair Elections Act will ensure everyday citizens are in charge of democracy, by putting special interests on the sidelines and rule-breakers out of business,” said Minister Poilievre.
“The bill also makes it harder to break elections law. It closes loopholes to big money, imposes new penalties on political impostors who make rogue calls, and empowers law enforcement with sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand.”
Other proposed changes in the bill:
• a mandatory public registry for automated election phone calls, or “robocalls,” and stiffer penalties for violators;
• placing tighter rules on voter identification at polling stations, eliminating voter ID cards and ending “vouching” for a voter not on the voter’s list;
• under the proposed bill, the only role of the chief electoral officer would be to inform the public of when, where, and how to vote;
• fundraising would be exempt from campaign spending limits;
• central polling supervisors (the person in charge of a particular polling location) would be appointed by a riding’s incumbent candidate or the candidate’s party.
Under current legislation, central poll supervisors are appointed by returning officers, who are hired by Elections Canada. The supervisors are put in place at polling stations to make sure voting unfolds smoothly.
Randy Kamp, the member of parliament for Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission, believes the proposed changes are warranted and ones that a majority of Canadians support.
“We think the changes are reasonable and fair,” said Kamp.
When it comes to vouching, Kamp noted that there are 39 different pieces of ID a person can bring to a polling station – from a Social Insurance Card and hospital bracelet to a letter from a shelter or soup kitchen.
“You can’t get on a plane without showing government-issued photo ID,” Kamp said.
However, roughly 120,000 voters, or about one per cent, used vouching to cast a ballot during the 2011 election.
Although voter turnout in general has plummeted, from 75 per cent in 1988 to 61 per cent in 2011, Kamp believes it’s not Elections Canada’s role to promote voting.
“The minister’s and my view is that Elections Canada’s primary role should be to make sure that people know when and where and how to vote,” said Kamp, adding that political parties should be the ones who encourage people to cast a vote.
The Fair Elections Act also proposes to house the commissioner of election within the office of the director of public prosecutions, a move Kamp believes will make the position more independent. The chief electoral officer will no longer be able to direct the commissioner to conduct investigations under the bill.
The Conservatives want the Fair Elections Act passed by June, while opposition parties in the House of Commons have called for more debate and more open consultations with all stake holders.
Kamp assures the bill is being debated at length.
“It’s going through the normal legislative process,” Kamp added.
“It’s important that the bill get passed and come into place well before the 2015 elections so there is a timeline that needs to be follow.”
Kiersten Duncan, a student at the University of the Fraser Valley, knows it’s difficult to get youth to vote.
Eliminating vouching will just make it even more so, the 21-year-old believes.
“It’s an attack on anyone who doesn’t have the proper identification, or if didn’t bring it with you. How many people are likely to go home, find the right ID and come back?”
She believes the promotion of voting should be done by a non-partisan body such as Elections Canada.
“It’s really scary to see that changing,” said Duncan, one of the youngest candidates to seek a seat on Maple Ridge council during the 2011 civic election.
“I don’t think people realize what’s happening … I’m afraid by the time they do, it will be too late.”
The federal New Democrats launched a petition this week, saying Bill C-23 is designed to import U.S.-style voter suppression tactics and benefit the ruling Conservatives.
NDP riding association president Janet Amsden believes the elimination of vouching will cost her party a few votes and disenfranchise seniors, the poor and First Nations voters.
For her, the vocal criticism from every corner is evidence that the Fair Elections Act must be reconsidered.
The critics include former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former auditor general Sheila Fraser, and groups representing seniors, students, Canadians with disabilities and aboriginal Canadians.
A coalition of Canadian politics experts and international scholars have written to the government, saying the proposed election reforms undermine democracy.
“The international community has always looked up to Canada as a beacon of democracy and an example of what a democratic country should be like and we are falling backwards,” Amsden said.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has pledged to repeal the government’s Fair Elections Act if he forms government next year.
We the People
We The People Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows hosts a town hall meeting on the Fair Elections Act Tuesday, April 29 at St. Andrews Heritage Church, 22279 – 116 Ave, Maple Ridge, 7-9 p.m. It will feature guest panelists: Brigitte DePape from Council of Canadians and Bruce Behrhorst from Fair Vote Canada among others.