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Harper's election 'reforms' contradict what Conservatives voted for in 2012

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It is important to remember that the reason there is now a Fair Elections Act before Parliament is what Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley identified as widespread voter suppression tactics during the 2011 campaign.

Mosley was dealing with the now notorious robocall scandal that afflicted the last federal election.

The Judge described that voter suppression in his 100-page decision, in May 2013, on the suit brought by six Canadians who sought to have the elections in their ridings overturned.

Mosley said that "misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country."

The purpose of those calls, he continued, was to "suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their voting preference in response to earlier voter identification calls."

In addition, Mosley stated there was clear evidence someone had used the Conservative Party's voter contact information database (CIMS) to identify the targets for this voter suppression effort.

NDP motion in 2012 would empower, not weaken, Elections Canada

When Postmedia broke the news of this shabby defiance of democracy in early 2012 there was widespread outrage.

That outrage forced the Conservatives in the House of Commons to vote in favour of an NDP motion designed to head off such abuse in the future.

Hamilton MP David Christopherson's motion enjoined Parliament to give Elections Canada all the necessary powers to investigate and punish the sort of voter suppression that happened in 2011 .

The motion even included a time frame. It said there should be new, tighter electoral rules within six months.

It was clear to anyone who was paying attention at the time that all members of Parliament agreed on what should be the focus of those new rules: the dangerous fraud of impersonating an Elections Canada official.

The unambiguous sense of Christopherson's motion was that Parliament should give Elections Canada the tools necessary to make sure such fraud never happened again.

Well, the Conservatives, every last one of them, voted for that motion, and then they showed they didn't really mean it.

First, they completely ignored the six month commitment.

They waited nearly two years before bringing forward any legislation, and when that legislation came it was in the form of Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre's bill, the oxymoronically titled Fair Elections Act.

To give the bill its due, the Fair Elections Act has created the new crime of impersonating an Elections Canada official -- as the NDP's motion suggested it should. However, and more importantly, the Act completely fails to provide the necessary investigative powers to the officials charged with enforcing the law.

As well, the NDP motion of 2012 decreed that Parliament should strengthen Elections Canada. In a number of ways, the bill now before Parliament actually weakens Elections Canada.

Not least of those ways is the provision to move the chief investigator, the Elections Commissioner, out of Elections Canada and into the Office of the Federal Public Prosecutor, who reports not to Parliament, as does the Chief Electoral Officer, but to the Minister of Justice.

Nasty attacks on Mayrand and his team are attacks on democracy

It seems that Harper and his team see the hue and cry over fraud in 2011 not as a call to tighten the rules and make elections truly fairer. They see it as an opportunity to bring in a whole slew of mischievous and anti-democratic measures under the guise of reform.

Harper's government did not even have the courtesy to show its proposed changes to the current Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, before tabling them in the House of Commons.

Worse, Democratic Reform Minister Poilievre has, with no evidence or facts, gone so far as to insinuate that Mayrand is not the non-partisan head of an effective, professional, internationally respected agency.

Poilievre claims that Mayrand and the agency he leads are, in fact, 'partisan' actors in the electoral process.

The Elections Canada folks, Poilievre says, wear "team jerseys" -- whatever that means.

The fact that the Harper government would gleefully and recklessly demonize Elections Canada in order to buttress support for its highly flawed elections reform bill is the most disturbing aspect of this whole exercise.

The Conservatives have put Mayrand into a near-impossible double-bind.

If the Chief Electoral Officer were to stay diplomatically silent, and not object to Poilievre's slander of his institution, he would, in effect, give credence to that slander.

One could imagine the Conservatives' crowing that their accusations of bias 'must be true, because neither Mayrand nor anyone else at Elections Canada has objected.'

If Mayrand were to speak up, on the other hand, then the Conservative riposte would be that he is 'being partisan.'

That is the classic schoolyard bully strategy. Go running to the teacher the minute the bullied kid fights back.

Mayrand defends himself; Conservative attacks become fiercer

As it happens, Mayrand has decided to fight back.

Last week, the Ottawa Citizen's Glen McGregor reported on a speech Mayrand gave to his staff, in which he said that the Fair Elections Act was a deliberate attack on Elections Canada.

According to McGregor's report, Mayrand implied that this attack was in revenge for the series of cases the agency has pursued involving the Conservative Party or Conservative candidates.

The Chief Electoral Officer then told his staff that he will not quit, nor be forced out of office, and will vigorously make Elections Canada's case to Parliament and to the public.

Sure enough Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, raised the Ottawa Citizen story the first chance he could, at Committee, last Thursday.

"The way I read the article, it was almost like a campaign-style speech to rally [Elections Canada staff] ... to get them angry at the government," Lukiwski said, in a preamble to a question to Poilievre. "I could only interpret that as being, in my mind at least, political activism."

Poilievre took the seeming high road in his response.

"Listen," he oozed, with a tone of near noblesse oblige, "I don't take these things personally. In politics emotions can run high from time to time..."

But the warning from the Conservatives to Mayrand was crystal clear.

It was: 'We are going to attack your integrity and that of Elections Canada and use that as pretext to render Canada's electoral system less accessible and less democratic. If you then do nothing, we will mock your passivity. If, however, you try to fight back (on behalf of Canadian voters) we will lash out at you with everything we've got!'

Suppressing the vote of young Canadians

Later in that same Committee meeting, Poilievre had a revealing exchange with NDP MP Alexandrine Latendresse.

Not too long ago Latendresse was a university student, and she worries that the proposed new voter ID requirements will make it harder for university and college students -- and young Canadians in general -- to vote.

She pointed out that a student card alone would not be sufficient ID because it does not have a student's address on it. The kind of ID the Act requires will be something along the lines of a driver's license, which includes the holder's address. While only a small percentage of Canadian adults do not have a driver's license, for young Canadians that number is about 25 per cent.

Latendresse pointed out that in 2011 electors could use the voter card most of us receive in the mail, which includes the residential address as corroborating ID, but the new Act will forbid that.

While all parties express earnest concern about the low participation rate of young Canadians, the young NDP MP argued, the new measures in the Fair Elections Act will make it even harder for her generation to vote.

Poilievre's argument was only that use of the Elections Canada cards was "not secure." He offered no evidence to support that claim.

The highly partisan U.S. system moves north

This intense effort to install barriers to voting comes straight out of the Republican playbook south of the border.

Judge Mosley made reference in his 2013 decision to the fact that voter suppression tactics were an import from the U.S., where election management is an openly partisan affair.

There is no equivalent to Elections Canada in the U.S.

There, state governments control everything from the drawing of district boundaries to the imposition of rules that, for instance, permanently forbid citizens who have ever been convicted of a felony from voting.

We have avoided that sort of politicization of the voting process in Canada, where elections are not, as a rule, occasions to call out battalions of lawyers.

The Fair Elections Act, if passed, will move us at least one step closer to the American model.

If Harper's government gets the chance, it may only be the first step.

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