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Canadians push back against Harper's assault on elections fairness

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March 25 was a day of action to protest the Harper government's Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23, which is now before the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee.

The protests, which took place across the country at 12:00PM local time, were jointly organized by the Council for Canadians, Leadnow.ca and the Canadian Federation of Students.

The three protest groups have a lot of unexpected allies in their fight.

There is The Globe and Mail, which has run an unprecedented six separate editorials skewering the Act.

There are the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other Postmedia newspapers, who have also editorially called Harper to task over Fair Elections.

There are national columnists Andrew Coyne and Jeffrey Simpson; and the 157 academics who signed a letter condemning the Act.

There is Manon Cornellier of Le Devoir and l'Actualité.

There are the current Chief Electoral Officer and his predecessor.

And there are the thousands of citizens who have expressed their outrage in letters, petitions, blogs and kitchen table discussions.

None of this passionate and committed opposition impresses Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, the man behind the Fair Elections Act.

On Monday, the Minister told CTV's Don Martin that he does not hear any similar level of concern from the ordinary Canadians he talks to. The reason for that acquiescence (if not wholehearted approval), Poilievre tried to claim, is because the Fair Elections Act is, indeed, really fair.

The Minister didn't offer the view that, maybe, those indifferent and uncritical rank-and-file citizens have simply not been paying close attention.

TV interviewer Don Martin certainly did not give the impression that he was particularly seized with the many problematic aspects of the C-23. He gave Poilievre a free ride without putting a single tough or probing question to him.

There's a sad irony to that. The television network CTV, that employs Martin, and The Globe and Mail, which has been so thoroughly and devastatingly critical of Fair Elections, are both owned by the same multi-tentacle conglomerate, Bell Media. The Poilievre interview on CTV was a missed opportunity to do some useful cross media promotion. For once, that sort of promotion would have served the public interest.

Muzzling Elections Canada will stop more than educational programs

There are a great many scary and obnoxious features of Fair Elections, and we've talked about a number of them in this space.

Here are two more that have not yet received the attention they deserve.

Mark Burgess, in The Hill Times, reports that if C-23 becomes law, Elections Canada will have to change its planned strategy to combat misleading calls to voters during the next election campaign.

One of Elections Canada's plans was to engage in what might be called "rapid response." The minute the agency got wind of misleading calls, especially calls that purported to be from Elections Canada itself, its plan was to publicly warn Canadians.

However, C-23 contains provisions that, in effect, muzzle Elections Canada.

They restrict the agency's public communications to telling people where and when to vote. Given those severe limits, spokesperson John Enright told Burgess, it would not be possible for Elections Canada to warn Canadians if and when it received information about possible fraud.

Poilievre's nearly ridiculous rationale for limiting Elections Canada's communications has been that the agency's recent get-out-the-vote educational efforts have been ineffective because voter participation has been going down not up.

That argument, a number of statisticians have remarked, makes the fairly simple-minded error of confusing correlation with cause and effect. One would not expect any less from a government that hates science.

In any case, whatever its merits, Poilievre's silly argument hardly warrants putting a total muzzle on Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer.

Is it possible that the real -- and more sinister -- reason for the muzzle provisions in C-23 is precisely to prevent Elections Canada from publicly intervening if and when dubious activities -- and possible criminal wrongdoing -- do occur during the next campaign?

Indeed, when you consider that C-23 also removes the office of the chief investigator, the Elections Commissioner, from Elections Canada, and puts it inside the federal public service, you begin to see a pattern.

Poilievre not only has no interest in seeing that electoral misconduct is effectively sanctioned, when it occurs. He wants to make sure that when there is misconduct there is nobody around to publicly blow the whistle.

Thirty nine pieces of ID. Really?

The Minister repeatedly claims that there are 39 pieces of ID voters could use to prove their identity. Therefore, Poilievre argues, we do not really need vouching and can happily do away with Elections Canada's own Voter Identification Cards as valid corroborating ID.

The truth is that Bill C-23 makes no mention of those "39 pieces" in any way, shape or form. When Poilievre trots out that number he is quoting the Elections Canada website.

It is Elections Canada that came up with a list (that tries to be as inclusive as possible) of a range of different forms of ID voters could use to establish their identity and address.

However, most of the acceptable pieces of ID must be used in combination. Few pieces of ID are sufficient to be used alone. For the most part, those that have a photo have no address; those that have an address have no photo.

Ergo, voters who do not have a driver's license with their current address (close to 15 per cent of the total, or more than two million voters) will, for the most part, need two separate pieces of those 39 possible forms of ID.

For tens of thousands of Canadians, the task of providing those two pieces of ID is not nearly as simple and easy as Poilievre would have us believe.

Two groups of citizens, in particular, are likely to encounter difficulty when they try to exercise their democratic right to vote: students who have no driver's license or whose license has their parents' address; and First Nations people who live on reserve and have no street address, just a Post Office Box number.

Those are just two of the examples Elections Canada provides.

For many students, First Nations people and a great many others, especially senior citizens, vouching has been their only option -- an option Poilievre wants to take away.

Worse, for no reason supported by evidence, the Minister seeks to ban the use of the one piece of valid ID, with address, that the federal government, through Elections Canada, provides to every voter: the Voter Information Card.

There is no logical or fact-based reason for these sorts of provisions.

We can only assume that Harper's Conservatives have other reasons, and that those reasons have nothing to do with assuring truly fair elections.

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