The Senate Puts Lipstick On A Pig

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Oh god of half-measures, deliver us from oblivion.

The interim report from the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affaires has made nine recommendations to the Fair Elections Act.  While they might be a little bit of water in the government’s wine, it looks like we’re still heading for a bender.

After two days of whirlwind hearings — and several foot-in-mouth instances of Elections Canada bashing — the Senators dropped their long-anticipated report.

Except, if you were expecting a full-throated rebuke of Poilievre’s bill, this isn’t it.  While the Democratic Reform Minister won’t be commenting on the proposed amendments until the bill goes to clause-by-clause at the end of the month, it can only be said that the amendments are welded-on buttresses to an otherwise untenable bill.

If anything, these recommendations may weigh down C-23 even further.

The first recommendations would authorize conversations between the Commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer.  That’s nice, but it’s almost emphatically what the government was trying to prevent with C-23.  Either this amendment would nullify that part of the bill to little more than bureaucratic feng shui, or it would be ignored altogether as the spirit of the law would be quite clear: the investigator and prosecutor should not collude.

The second would require residence administrators issue attestations of name and address for those who seek it.  On the face of it, this is a welcome change.  One of the main critiques of the government’s defence, in eliminating vouching, was that administrators of long-term care facilities, student residences, or First Nations reserves could simply sign an attestation and that would serve as proof of address.  But it’s not quite foolproof. EKOS ran a survey in 2011, asking those administrations how the election went.  The majority (44%) said they signed no attestations.  Many others (34%) said they signed a few dozen letters, with the remainder of respondents (11%) saying they signed over forty letters attesting to the name and address of the voters.  There’s a few issues, here: many of these administrators say it was cumbersome and annoying to do, and we have no idea how many refused; there was still some confusion about the program, with some administrators saying they were getting conflicting or inaccurate information about the process; and, most of all, this seems like a system ripe for abuse.  With vouching, a person has to present themselves to Elections Canada staff with a second person, on the voters rolls in that poll, and swear an oath.  With attestations, the manager of a facility can simply sign hundreds of pieces of papers et voila you’re all entitled to vote.  If you’re worried about fraud, I’m not sure that selling the farm to McDonald’s is the best course of action.

The third axes the fundraising exemption.  This is nothing but good.  The loophole in C-23 — which allows parties to spend unlimited amounts of money, so long as it’s used for “fundraising” — was big enough to drive a Mack truck through.

Fourthly, the Senate recommends requiring robocall records to be kept for at least three years, up from just one in C-23.  Again, this is a recommendation that has been made by just about every expert to come before committee.  While they’ve also recommended expanding the records — include recordings, as well as scripts — this is a pretty good first step to fix-up a pretty well-intentioned clause to begin with.

Bills Political Shop

Fifth, and somewhat confoundingly, maintain that Elections Canada can no longer encourage democratic participation, except when it does.  The Senate recommends clarifying that Elections Canada can still participate in programs like Student Vote, CIVIX, and others.  This would effectively neuter the Fair Elections Act except, interestingly, when it comes to advertising.  Elections Canada, seemingly, would still be barred form running get-out-and-vote ads.

Recommendations six and seven are fitting with suggestions from those with vision loss who testified before committee.  The Senate would instruct Elections Canada to improve information about braille ballots, provide for speciality voting booths, and include photographs of the candidates on the ballots.  The former two, ostensibly, would be informal requests to the CEO, not statutory changes, whereas the latter may prove controversial — who decides which picture is allowed?  Will voters simply vote for the most attractive candidate?  How much will it cost to print ballots with full-colour pictures?

Eight, similarly, wouldn’t actually amend the bill.  Nevertheless, the Senate recommends that Elections Canada allow printed-off e-bills and the like.  While this is a huge step to allow those who don’t get paper bills anymore, it should be pointed out that forging a bill and printing it off is probably still easier than finding someone in your poll to vouch for you illegally.

Finally, the Senators suggest the government should explicitly provide for communications between the CEO and Commissioner about any problems they uncover in the voting system.  If this sounds the same as the first recommendation, that’s because it is.

So, all-in-all, C-23 stays largely the same.  Parties will still have enormous power to nominate Elections Canada staff that experts all agree should be non-partisan, vouching will still be kiboshed, the Voter Information Card will be eliminated as a piece of corroborative ID, the commissioner will still be moved and will not gain the power to compel testimony, efforts to move towards online voting will be curtailed, and the voting process as a whole will not be improved.

The Liberal Senators on the committee expressed dismay at that reality in the report’s minority opinion, where they noted — amongst other things — that C-23 likely remains unconstitutional.

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OTHER ARTICLES BY JUSTIN LING

The media matters
So proud to be in Rome
Old Stephen Harper vs. New Stephen Harper on the Fair Elections Act
Stephen Harper the dinosaur
Minister Poilievre Interviewed On Fair Elections Act

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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

 

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