It’s an unlikely strategy, but could it work?

The Conservatives have come up with what seems like a very odd response to the tsunami of opposition to their so-called Fair Elections Act.

They are putting Prime Minister Harper’s relentlessly slippery Democratic Reform Minister, Pierre Poilievre, in front of virtually every microphone that will have him.

They seem to think the one-time boy wonder MP from suburban Ottawa has the charm and wit to push back against the pointed and detailed criticism of so many eminent Canadians — of whom former Auditor General Sheila Fraser is only the most recent.  

The 34-year old Minister of State will not debate, of course.  

He only appears one on one with interviewers — who don’t seem, by and large, to buy his snake oil, and who generally ask some tough and skeptical questions.

But interviewers cannot be experts in everything. Despite their best efforts, Poilievre throws out a whole lot of howlers that his interlocutors do not usually challenge.

The ID rules are not so simple and easy

Perhaps the biggest of those howlers is the one about those “39 pieces of identification.”

Poilievre keeps claiming that the Fair Elections Act allows voters to use any one of those 39 pieces.

He also claims that the Act does not, in any way, require photo ID.

Neither of those claims are quite true.

First, the new proposed law, Bill C-23, does not specify a list of possible types of identification.

Those now famous “39 pieces” come not from the Bill, but from Elections Canada. The non-partisan agency devised that list after the Elections Act was amended in 2006 to, for the first time ever, require that voters provide ID.

The 2006 law gives voters two types of identification options.

They can use a single piece of government-issued, photo ID, if it includes both the voter’s name and current address. For most of us that would be a driver’s license.

There are very few other forms of government picture ID that include a person’s address.

Neither the Health Card (for most Canadians) nor the passport include address and so would not be good enough, on their own, to allow a person to vote.

The millions of voters who do not have that single piece of government photo ID must provide two pieces of identification, one of which must have their address. 

And here’s the rub.

Of the four million Canadians who have no driver’s license, most have no trouble providing one valid piece of ID, say a health card. Where many run into trouble is in finding acceptable ID that includes their current street address (assuming they have one).

Indeed, most cases of vouching have not been for voters who have no identification whatsoever. Vouching has tended to happen for folks who have valid ID, but no identification that includes their address.

Seniors, students, young people and others who live transient lives, Aboriginal Canadians, the disabled, and the poor are most likely to fall into that category.

Poilievre is too glib by half in the House

On Thursday, during Question Period, Poilievre repeated this ID howler in two different statements.  

First, he said: “…in Canada we do not require photo ID.”

That is false.

To repeat, in Canada, if you want to use a single piece of ID, it must be government-issued, photo ID. That provision is in the law as amended in 2006, and which the Fair Elections Act does not change.

You can look it up.

Poilievre also told the House: “It is reasonable to expect that somebody bring one of 39 different pieces of identity when they go to vote…”

That too is false.

If you don’t have that single piece of government-issued photo ID, you have to bring two of those 39 pieces of ID, and one of them must include your street address.

It is not quite so easy and simple as Poilievre would have you and his legions of interviewers believe.  

‘Governments that require ID must ensure that such ID is provided free of cost to voters’

And while we’re on the ID issue, one of the many, many witnesses who have appeared before the House Committee to critique C-23, Patti Lenard, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Research Associate, explained a few key facts about identification requirements to the assembled MPs this past Wednesday evening.

First, she pointed out that Canada’s existing ID requirements are more restrictive than those of many countries.

Lenard, who is also a University of Ottawa professor of applied ethics, told the Committee that the UK, Australia and New Zealand all have the system Canada did until 2006. In those countries, one only need be on the voter registry to exercise one’s constitutional right to vote. No ID of any sort is required.

According to international best practices, she said, “governments that do require identification must ensure that such ID is provided free of cost to voters.”

As it stands now, Elections Canada does issue one such piece of free ID, with address, to all voters: the voter information card. Bill C-23, for no evident reason at all, bans the use of that card, even when used in conjunction with another piece of ID.

Lenard sees in this sort of measure a dangerous tendency to make voting not a right, but a limited privilege.

“The right to vote,” she told the Committee, “is not something the government grants us permission to do, like driving, hunting or practicing medicine. It belongs to each of us, in virtue of out citizenship status. The job of a truly democratic government is to protect our right to vote by securing the conditions that make it possible. The Fair Elections Act does the opposite.”

The Minister’s mastery of the constitution has its limits

Poilievre was hearing similar arguments about that constitutional right in the House on Thursday. In response, he came up with one of his most abysmal pieces of illogical pseudo-reasoning yet.

Here is what he said: “All Canadians, I think, would agree that … when one crosses the border, one should be asked to bring ID; that when one gets on an airplane, one should be asked to bring ID. I heard somebody claim that it is not a constitutional right, but, in fact, mobility rights are in the Constitution. Crossing the border is a basic right, but when one exercises that right, one has to provide identification…”

Poilievre is slick and smooth, and his arguments might even sound convincing — until you consider the facts.

First, Canada’s constitutional mobility rights do not include the “right” to board an airplane, willy-nilly.

Air travel is a service that businesses sell to their customers. Constitutional mobility rights do not allow any of us to board a plane without a ticket.

In that sense, air travel is in no way analogous to voting.

The Charter of Rights does not permit any of us to occupy a business class seat on an airplane. (Wouldn’t that be sweet if it were so?)

The Charter does guarantee all citizens the unqualified constitutional right to vote, whether they are poor or rich, young or old, able bodied or disabled. And the state must not place unreasonable barriers in the way of any citizens exercising that right.

As for Poilievre’s equally weak border-crossing comparison — just think of this, to re-enter Canada after travelling outside the country you only need one piece of ID, and that piece does not need to have your address.

In addition, if, in the course of travelling, your ID were stolen, Canadian consular officials would do everything they could to facilitate your return home, even without ID, and even if that meant others had to “vouch” for you.

In other words, Poilievre’s proposed ID restrictions on the constitutional right to vote are far, far more severe than those that apply to Canadians when they return home from foreign trips.

The Minister may be slippery and glib, and superficially convincing, in his own oily way. But his arguments are not always logical — nor even truthful.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...