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The moral case for Fair Elections

| March 25, 2014
Photo: flickr/Micheal J

Free and fair votes are the basis of any truly democratic system, something people of faith have a long history of promoting. Yet Christians in Canada have been relatively silent on details such as campaign financing, advertising and even the increasing use of electronic campaign tools. If our approach to politics is rooted in love of neighbour, we will recognize that these issues have moral implications and are worthy of periodic review and revision.

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) encourages Canadians to engage in "hopeful citizenship." In one of our foundational documents, CPJ encourages citizens to work out this call specifically by voting and participating in electoral processes not only to "help hold elected governments accountable for public justice" but also to "promote the development of political parties that pursue just policies rather than electoral machines."

Yet out of the last federal election in 2011, there have been far too many controversies and court challenges around spending limit infractions, robocalls and even charges against political staff.

In advance of the promised October 2015 federal election, Parliament is now debating a piece of legislation that is over 240 pages long, Bill C-23, an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act. Canada's Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, presented his bill to the House of Commons in February. Unfortunately, the process of advancing this legislation has been unhelpful.

The government did not see fit to share the legislation with Canada's Chief Electoral Officer before it was tabled and then resorted to the use of time allocation to limit debate in the House of Commons. The Globe and Mail has devoted no less than five editorials to the proposed legislation, concluding that much of "the Conservative government's Fair Elections Act is supported by neither evidence nor public consensus"...and "…needs to be stopped and given a major re-write."

"The Fair Elections Act," as it has been termed, does have some positive proposals for improvements in our electoral system. It adds more advance polling days and modernizes the online voter registration system which should allow for greater voter turnout. This is important, as Elections Canada has noted a worrisome trend in voter interest. Although 70-80 per cent of Canadians voted until 1993, in the 2011 election, only 61 per cent of voters cast their ballots.

However, other content of the proposed legislation is worrisome. 

The "Fair Elections Act" would eliminate the practice of "vouching" for prospective voters who arrive at their voting station without valid voter ID. The government's plan to eliminate voter information cards could effectively disenfranchise about 120,000 voters -- among them young people, transients, Aboriginal people and seniors. The Ottawa Citizen editorialized that "eliminating the vouching system that has served many voters well is like killing an ant with a sledgehammer." In recent elections only about a third of eligible voters aged 21-24 exercised their right to vote. Public justice demands we promote greater participation for all, especially those already underrepresented in voting patterns.

Another major criticism is the Act's intended diminishment of the role of the Chief Electoral Officer. After the irregularities of the 2011 election, Canadians might have expected that the Chief Electoral Officer's powers would be enhanced, especially the ability to investigate parties and compel testimony in cases of suspected wrong doing. Instead, some duties of the Chief Electoral Officer (such as encouraging Canadians to vote, enforcement of the Elections Act, and publishing reports on the electoral process) are being cancelled. The government wants political parties be tasked with encouraging people to vote. But public justice suggests it is the role of a publicly funded non-partisan body (Elections Canada) to encourage greater public participation.

A further concern in the proposed legislation relates to election financing. The proposed Bill increases the limit an individual can donate to a political campaign by 30 per cent. A public declaration opposing the new Bill (signed by 170 political science professors) suggests that the changes will tilt the public playing field towards the wealthy. A public justice approach promotes the adoption of truly fair laws, ones which are "designed to nurture an equitable society." It's crucial that we allow economically marginalized groups of people to have their voices heard.

Marc Mayrand, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, has told MPs that, "If you want to ensure the legitimacy of your electoral system, you should seek broad consensus." CPJ agrees, and believes that Parliamentary debate -- but perhaps more importantly -- public consultation and engagement on such important concerns, should be a prominent feature of any major reform to Canada's electoral system.

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based, member-supported public policy organization in Ottawa.www.cpj.ca

Photo: flickr/Micheal J

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