Fair Elections Act
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to offer my voice in this House of Commons on Bill C-23.
I did have the privilege of spending a lot of time, as I said, with colleagues on the procedure and House affairs committee. I also had the ability, particularly as a by-election winner, to follow this issue as it evolved to the present state that is before this House of Commons, which is Bill C-23.
In my brief time that I have, I am going to try to dispel a few myths that still linger out there on Bill C-23.
I have been having great conversations with people in my riding of Durham, and I know people in my riding have been patiently waiting for me to speak on this today. I have also heard from passionate Canadians on all sides of this issue, from people in coffee shops, some passionate University of Toronto professors talking about modernizing our elections law, critiques, positive comments, and that sort of thing. However, the echo chamber and politics around Bill C-23 led to some myths that in many cases still remain out there. Therefore, in my remarks today, I am going to try and dispel some of the myths.
The biggest myth that we still hear in debate in this place is that Bill C-23 came from out of nowhere, with no consultation, no contribution from expert opinion, and that sort of thing, that this was foisted upon Canada, and that it was done with strategic brilliance to favour Conservatives.
The reality is that Bill C-23 comes from the need to fix our antiquated system of administering elections. The “antique” comes from the Elections Canada expert charged with making recommendations on the forum. In fact, Terry Neufeld, at page 24 of his report, said: “…an overhaul is urgently required”.
Why did Elections Canada ask Mr. Neufeld, who served as the B.C. Chief Electoral Officer with distinction for many years, for this report?
Well, Elections Canada asked for it after the calamity of the election in Etobicoke Centre in 2011. We have a fine member for Etobicoke Centre in this place who won a narrow win by 26 votes. However, a lower court in Ontario overturned that result. All election observers recognize that if small margin elections can be overturned so easily, it could lead to a margin of litigation and in fact further lack of confidence in our election results.
Fortunately, in that case, the overturning of the result was reversed and the Supreme Court of Canada held that the member for Etobicoke Centre won. The Supreme Court decision also demonstrated that the system of running elections in Canada was profoundly broken, which led to Mr. Neufeld. In fact, that decision led to a national audit of elections with thousands of polls examined to see where there were errors in the system, including some polls in my 2012 byelection in Durham. That audit allowed Mr. Neufeld to examine the cases of errors in registration, in vouching, and make an urgent plea to modernize our elections law.
Mr. Neufeld was also prescient. We warned that there would be radical resistance because we live in a great parliamentary democracy. Our system seems to run quite well and so a lot of people do not feel there is really a need to reform. However, the Supreme Court of Canada case showed that fraud and irregularities can be considered on par if they result in an election result being overturned. Serious irregularities can lead to that result. We saw that in Etobicoke Centre.
What did Mr. Neufeld’s report say about irregularities? On average, there are 500 irregularities per riding. Historically, there are a lot of politicians at the provincial and federal levels with the nickname “landslide”, and they usually get that nickname by winning their first election with a very narrow result.
In fact, most general elections have between 5 and 15 seats decided by 500 or fewer votes, while the audit showed that there are at least 500 irregularities or errors per riding. There was a real risk to the margin of litigation and no end to an election result in a community. It is unfair if that community has to wait months for litigation to the Supreme Court of Canada to determine who it is sending to the House of Commons.
Another myth I would like to address is vouching. I asked my hon. colleague a question on that because it was portrayed by some voices in the media that the elimination of vouching was the decline of our democracy as we know it. People were going to be disenfranchised and their constitutional right to vote was going to be struck from them. That is not the case. In fact, there were numbers quoted by some learned people, even before committee, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of people would lose their right to vote because of the elimination of vouching.
The fatal error with that logic is the fact that they did not ask the question to determine whether the person who vouched had any idea. I would note that only a few provinces allow vouching and no municipalities in the province of Ontario allow vouching. To suggest that everyone who used a vouching approach to voting would not have any ID to satisfy the basic registration requirements is simply erroneous. That number was thrown out and repeated many times, even by good members of this place, without any basis in reality.
What was the reality from the audit? Mr. Neufeld looked and 120,000 people in Canada vouched in the 2011 general election. There were 120,000 vouching transactions and he found 95,500 errors. It is hardly something that inspires confidence in a G7 country. They were serious errors. Often there were multiple mistakes made in the vouching process. Someone vouching several times for one person is not allowed, and that sort of thing, but Mr. Neufeld found that 42% of all vouching transactions, almost half, were serious errors. When we connect that with the Supreme Court that showed that serious errors and irregularities are as bad for our system as fraud, clearly something needed to be done. Mr. Neufeld, at page 28 of his report, said that it would be very difficult to fix vouching.
Therefore, we think it is reasonable to ask Canadians to show identification when they vote. Our amendments have also recognized that some people may have difficulty with the address component at registration, so there will be some flexibility built in for those people. However, I sincerely hope that in the future that ambiguity is eliminated so that we can have absolute certainty.
I would also refer people on this subject to the 2007 “Electoral Participation of Electors with Disabilities” report commissioned by Elections Canada. Dr. Prince ran that study that looked at specific groups that were under-represented on voting day. That report from Elections Canada, as well as people who appear before committee, confirmed that voter participation, low turnout rates of students, members of first nations, or the homeless, are not related to identification or registration issues. Their participation challenges are totally distinct and something we should address, but when it was being connected with vouching, it was done in a way to cause unnecessary concern among Canadians.
Finally, we have heard a lot in this place about the 39 forms of identification that Elections Canada provides. I found many people, even media commentators, thinking that those 39 pieces were in Bill C-23. Those forms of identification are outlined by Elections Canada after specific consideration for groups with low participation rates. I have suggested that attestation letters used by first nations, schools, and shelters could actually improve turnout. Those are there now. They were there in the last election.
Bill C-23 is an approach that we feel would modernize a system that has demanded modernization for a generation. Our modest amendments are as a result of having listened to the concerns and would strengthen the bill. I think we are going to have better results, in the future, in our elections.