Libby protests new ID rules in ‘Fair’ Elections Act

House of Commons


February 7, 2014

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time today with the member for La Pointe-de-l’Île.

I have seen a lot of legislation come and go in this House in almost 17 years. I have participated in vigorous debates in the House where we have opposed legislation and some occasions where we have supported government legislation.

However, I have to say that this particular bill that is before us today, Bill C-23, the so-called fair elections act, is something that I feel angry about, actually, I have to say.

First, it is being debated under a closure motion, I might say. We now have had over 50 different times in this House that the Conservative government has used closure to, in effect, limit and gag debate. That, in and of itself, is very offensive.

However, what I find very problematic about the bill is that Canadians are being told that it is a fair elections act and that it would deal with, for example, the election fraud that was so widespread in the last election.

Let us remember that it is the Conservative government and the Conservative Party that have the worst track record on breaking election laws in this country, whether it was the in-and-out scheme or whether it was the robocalls that were designed simply to suppress opposition votes.

The guise of the bill is to deal with election fraud.

However, when we actually examine the bill, we can see that there are so many other elements of the bill that are actually designed to undermine the role of Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer.

I have dealt with Elections Canada many times over the years, six different elections. I have often had criticisms about how the voting worked, particularly, in my community and, particularly, in the downtown eastside where people are sometimes turned away from polls because they do not have ID. I have had an ongoing relationship with Elections Canada and have pointed out concerns of lack of training and issues in my local community and I have always found it to be responsive to those issues when I raised them after an election.

In fact, Elections Canada has a worldwide reputation as a first-rate organization and is used as a model, globally, of what an independent electoral organization can be about.

It is very dismaying and concerning to see that the bill would, in effect, undermine the power of the Chief Electoral Officer. It would create a new entity. It would remove general public education.

In fact, in questions in the House this week, even today, we hear the minister for democratic reform blaming Elections Canada for a lower voter turnout.

This is a complex issue. To have this simple fix by removing the role of education and talking to voters about voting, whether it is young people, first nations, students, new Canadians, by removing that role from the Chief Electoral Officer seems inexplicable, in terms of the rationale.

One can only come to the conclusion that the current government has basically brought forward a bill–it did not even consult the Chief Electoral Officer, by the way–that would undermine the role and the mandate and the foundations of Elections Canada.

That is one element in the bill that I think is hugely problematic.

The other element is the fact that the bill would remove a number of provisions whereby people, particularly, who are not normally on the electors list and who have difficulty voting because they do not have the proper ID, would now find it very difficult, if not near possible, to vote.

I am speaking here, in particular, about what is called the “vouching system”.

This is something that we used extensively or various organizations in East Vancouver used extensively. For example, we would have lawyers on East Hastings Street who would help people determine whether or not they were on the voters list, who would help them figure out whether they had enough ID and if they did not, who would help them in the process of what was called an “affidavit vote”.

All of that would be removed.

We used to have the vouching system where somebody who knew somebody in the community who was homeless or who was on the street but was eligible to vote, who was a Canadian citizen, who lived in Vancouver, who was 19 years of age, would make sure that information was provided to people.

There were many organizations that did an incredible service in vouching for people by saying, for example, “Yes, we know that person. They come to the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings every day. We know who that person is and they should be able to vote”. On that basis, a person was able to demonstrate their eligibility and be able to vote.

Sometimes there were problems and the deputy returning officers would turn people away. There were issues and we did follow them up. However, the fact of the matter is that the system of vouching has been a very important democratic tool for people in my community to be able to vote.

In a previous Parliament, Bill C-31 severely restricted the vouching system. I fought tooth and nail against that. I thought it was a terrible proposition. Again, it was designed to hurt people, particularly those of low income.

Now we get to Bill C-23 and the vouching system is completely eliminated. I feel extremely worried about the impact that will have in the next federal election in 2015 as there were about 100,000 people who used the vouching system in the last election.

We have just heard from one member that there was a 25% error rate and therefore it was a terrible system that had to be thrown out. However, if one reads the details, one would find out that most of the errors occurred because there was a lack of adequate training for poll clerks and the deputy returning officers in administering the vouching system. Therefore, it is really a question of better training, but the bill would throw out the whole system.

I really feel that we are now setting up an election process that is a two-tier system. If one is a property owner, one is guaranteed to be on the voters list; guaranteed to get a voter card in the mail. A property owner would probably have a driver’s license or some other identification, and there would not be an issue. However, in Vancouver, 50% of residents are not property owners. They are tenants, students, low-income families, seniors and people who may move because the housing cost is so high people are always seeking more affordable housing. Those people end up not being on the voters list. They end up not getting the information they require. Therefore, having provisions that would allow people to be eligible to vote on election day even if they are not on the list is extremely important.

I am very distressed about Bill C-23. If we look at this historically, we have come far in a spectrum of disenfranchising people.

I do not know about other members in this House, but I remember the days when people could walk down their street and see the voters list tacked up on the telephone poll. People could look at the list and see if they were on it. I remember the days when an enumerator would come door to door asking who lived in the household, who was eligible to vote, and they would go through the criteria and people would get registered. All of that is gone. However, it was not the current government that did that, it was a Liberal government.

I want to make this point because I think it shows us how much our electoral system has been eroded in terms of its primary function, which is to enfranchise people who are eligible to vote and to make sure they have the information, tools and the system in place to make that process smooth and as accessible as possible. The key word is “accessible”.

We have now come so far along that road. Here we are debating the bill on the opening day of the Olympics. Who the heck is even going to be watching this debate? The Conservatives brought in a closure motion yesterday, and so we have a few hours of debate and the bill will be rushed off to committee. Before Canadians even know what is happening, the bill will be approved, yet is would impact every single voter in this country.

I am very glad that as many members of the NDP as possible are taking the opportunity to speak about the bill, to get the information out to the public and alert people that Bill C-23 is not a fair election act. The bill is actually about voter suppression. It is about gagging the Chief Elector Officer. It is about undermining a democratic election system.

This is a thoroughly bad bill and we will do everything we can to stop it.