Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, has a number of major objections to the government’s Fair Elections Act.

On Thursday, he presented a long brief on his concerns and changes he would like to see to the House Committee studying the Act.

But when pushed to name what he fears most about the Fair Elections Act, Mayrand said simply: it will deprive thousands of Canadians of their right to vote.

How could a law that claims to guarantee Fair Elections do pretty much the opposite?

Well, for one thing, the Fair Elections Act gets rid of a time-honoured Canadian democratic practice called “vouching.”

How vouching works is that a voter who has the necessary ID can swear that another voter who does not have ID showing their address is indeed the person they say they are.

Mayrand says vouching was used about 120,000 times during the last election, and there were only a miniscule number of complaints about potential fraud.

The most common form of vouching, the Chief Electoral Officer explained, is for senior citizens living in what he called “closed facilities” — assisted living arrangements or retirement homes — who very often don’t have driver’s licenses, or other similar ID. They frequently do not even have such paper documents as credit card bills.

In a great many cases, Mayrand told the Committee, it is their own adult children who vouch for the seniors.

Supreme Court deems the right to vote to be essential to democracy

Conservative Committee members kept referring to a study that showed there were frequent irregularities in the reporting of vouching.

However, such irregularities, Mayrand explained, were more of a technical and bureaucratic than substantive nature. What has tended to happen in such cases is that the elections official recording the vouching might, for instance, write that the vote was vouched for by a voter’s daughter, rather than indicating the full name of the voucher, as required by law.

Such an error is not serious enough to make a vote invalid, Mayrand argued, and to support his case he cited the Supreme Court decision in the 2012 Opitz v. Wrzesnewskyj case.

In the 2011 election, Ted Opitz, a Conservative, defeated then Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj by the narrowest of margins in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre. The Liberal contested the result on the basis of irregularities, such as incorrectly recording information related to vouching, and convinced a lower court to order a new election.

Opitz appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favour.

The Supreme Court based its judgment largely on the near sacrosanct nature of the constitutional right to vote in a democracy. It quoted an earlier Supreme Court ruling that eloquently explained the importance of a truly untrammeled and universal right to vote:

“Democracy … is a form of government in which sovereign power resides in the people as a whole,” that ruling said,  “In our system of democracy, this means that each citizen must have a genuine opportunity to take part in … the selection of elected representatives … Absent such a right, ours would not be a true democracy.”

Let’s say that again: “Absent such a right, ours would not be a true democracy.”

In the Opitz case the Supreme Court decision noted that the use of vouching was one of the mechanisms by which Canada has done its best to assure that all citizens, regardless of age, race or economic status, are able to exercise the right to vote.

Perhaps the Conservatives need a refresher course on the Canadian Charter of Rights. And if the Fair Elections Act does pass as it is, without any changes, they may get that lesson in the form of a constitutional appeal to the highest court.

Ironically, the Conservative MP who benefitted from the Supreme Court’s unyielding commitment to the sacred right to vote, Ted Opitz himself, was sitting right there in the Committee room throughout Thursday’s session.

Had the Court ruled otherwise in 2012 Opitz would likely be out of a job, by now. On Thursday, he remained as mum as a stone plinth. He said not a word.

Voter Information Cards: Most accurate government identification document

The other way in which the Fair Elections Act will deprive many Canadians of their right to vote is the removal of the Voter Information Cards, which Elections Canada provides to registered voters, as a legitimate form of ID.

Mayrand pointed out that very few forms of ID include a person’s address. A driver’s license does, but neither health cards nor passports do, for instance. The current electoral law specifies that voters must show some document with their current address in order vote.

For a great many of us the driver’s license is ideal for this purpose, but many millions of Canadians do not have such licenses. For those voters the Voter Information Card has been invaluable. They have been able to use that card to attest to their address, in conjunction with another piece of ID that does not include home address.

Mayrand is puzzled — and deeply worried — by the Conservatives’ decision to end the use of voter information cards as corroborating ID.

“With an accuracy rate of 90 per cent,” he told the Committee, “the voter information card is likely the most accurate and widely available government document.”

The idea of killing the Voter Information Card, like so many other weird bits of nonsense in the Fair Elections Act, comes completely out of left field, supported by no serious evidence.

In a thorough report he did for Elections Canada in 2013, the former Chief Electoral Officer of British Columbia, Harry Neufeld, recommended expanding the use of the Voter Information Cards as ID, not ending it.

Only one Conservative member spoke to the Information Card issue during the questioning of Mayrand, Ottawa valley MP Scott Reid.

Reid had no studies to quote, no factual information gleaned from research.

All he had was a personal anecdote, from a number of years ago, about how he once received three different cards, using different versions of his own name, at his home address.

Reid did not vote three times, however. Even if he wanted to, it would have been almost impossible, in any case, because the Voter Information Card is not sufficient on its own. To repeat, it can only be used — as a rule to provide evidence of a voter’s home address — together with at least one other piece of ID.

Partisan politics rather than genuine reform

Reid’s shaggy dog story, hardly a substitute for serious research, was typical of the Conservatives’ approach on Thursday. They were more interested in making glib debating points than truly engaging with the issues at hand.

The main motive for this round electoral reform, do not forget, was not any evidence of fraud carried out by individual voters. The motive was the fraudulent activity of a political party that attempted to deter some Canadians from voting in the last election.

In his ruling of last May on the so-called “robocall” case, Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley said, unequivocally, that he was convinced that there had been widespread fraud of that nature during the last federal election campaign.

In the wake of public concern over those real cases of attempted voter suppression, Mayrand and his office put forward a number of proposals to improve the investigation of electoral misdeeds and enforcement of the law.

The Harper government cherry-picked a few of those, ignored some of the most crucial recommendations — such as giving the Commissioner of Elections (the chief investigator) the capacity to compel recalcitrant potential witnesses to share what they know — and then decided to use the need for reform as an opportunity to play outrageously partisan games.

The Harper government has even slipped provisions in the Fair Elections Act that will weaken and hobble Elections Canada, preventing it from engaging in almost any form of public communication.

For instance, if, during a campaign, Elections Canada learned about incidents of attempted fraud, such as impersonating an Elections Canada official, it would not have the right, under the terms of the proposed legislation, to communicate that information with Canadians as a warning not to be duped.

The Fair Elections Act then goes further — it prevents the Commissioner of Elections from informing Canadians that they are investigating a breach of the law.

In fact — based on a recommendation from nobody at all, and no evidence beyond Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre’s nasty slander about Elections Canada wearing “team jerseys” — the Fair Elections Act moves the Commissioner out of Elections Canada and into the office of a federal public servant, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

The Fair Elections Act deems that all information the Commissioner will be permitted to communicate with Canadians will be through the regular reports of the DPP. As it stands now, all of such information would be subject to Government of Canada communications rules set out by Treasury Board.

Fundraising and campaigning — a distinction without a difference

All of this deeply worries Mayrand. Such provisions do not look as though they are designed to make it harder to break the law. They almost seem designed for the opposite purpose.

And then there is the completely zany provision in the Act to exclude one whole category of election campaigning — so-called fundraising — from campaign expenditure limits. The Act says that political party activity that consists of contacting supporters who have contributed at least $20 to the party is exempt from campaign spending limits.

Mayrand says even if one were to take the Conservatives at their word that they only want to exempt a limited category of “fundraising” activity, that provision is completely unenforceable.

There are no measures in the Act to give Elections Canada access to phone numbers of people called by parties or access to party voter contact databases. As a result it would be impossible for Elections Canada to know what all those professional phone-canvassers and emailers were up to during campaigns.

There is more, much more, but it will have to wait for another day.

The only faint hope one might have that the Harper government would consider changes of the sort Mayrand proposes to the Act is a deeply concerned and aroused Canadian public.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...