Is it really a ‘Fair Elections Act’?

March 12, 2014   ·   0 Comments

Any fair-minded person who would go about drafting something to be called the Fair Elections Act might be advised to start by looking at what has been wrong with past federal elections.

Were he or she to do so, they would quickly see that the biggest problem has nothing to do with potential fraud but rather has been the absence of roughly one-third of the eligible electors from the polling booths.

Instead, in what the Harper government has dubbed the Fair Elections Act, the focus is on the supposed threat of voter fraud. This despite the fact even the Supreme Court of Canada has found no significant existence of voter fraud, and some see the proposed measures to prevent such frauds as potentially disenfranchising thousands of legitimate voters.

Equally curious are provisions in the act which would create a loophole in the rules setting caps on election expenses by excluding all spending aimed at coaxing patrons in past elections to continue donating to the party (and perhaps increasing their givings?).

Curious as such an exemption might be, it’s surely no coincidence that the Conservatives have traditionally received far more (and larger) donations than the other federal parties and would thus stand to benefit more than their opponents. As The Globe and Mail editorialized on the subject Tuesday: “The clause raises giant red flags. It’s based on no democratic principle that we can identify. It seems designed to promote political advantage rather than electoral fairness.”

Critics, including Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, are also concerned that it will be impossible to ensure that calls to previous donors don’t also include requests to volunteer for the party, put up a lawn sign or get out the vote. It could be an easy way to transform election expenses limited by law into election expenses not limited by law.

The proposed Act also includes a provision giving parties the power to name poll supervisors – election workers who are supposed to be non-partisan.

The potential disenfranchisement would result from a provision barring votes cast by people who show up at the ballot box with only voter-information cards or with friends, family or neighbours “vouching” for them. It’s estimated that about 120,000 people voted this way in 2011, and many of those people were seniors, youth, aboriginal Canadians or disadvantaged citizens.

Interestingly, the legislation in question is designed to take effect in time for the October 2015 federal election.

But back to what we see as needed in anything resembling a Fair Elections Act, namely measures aimed at getting more Canadians to cast ballots.

In Australia the election system includes both compulsory voting and full-preferential, instant-runoff voting in single-member seats. Although that is obviously fairer than our “first past the post” system, it would inevitably lead to coalition governments in circumstances similar to Canada’s today, with polls showing three parties each having the support of about one in three eligible voters.

However, if the aim is simply to get a higher turnout at the polls rather than make voting compulsory, some thought should be given to use of the tax credit system, with all those who show up to cast ballots being given receipts that would entitle them to a “democratic tax credit” of perhaps $25 or $50.

We might then have elections that would be both fair and more accurately reflect voter preferences.

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