Above: Former B.C. chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld tells Tom Clark the Fair Elections Act as written could prevent 500,000 people from voting.
What started as a slow burn of opposition to the Conservatives’ proposed election reforms has burst into a five-alarm fire for the Harper government. Since Bill C-23 was introduced in February, the official Opposition has staged a filibuster and experts, including current and past chief electoral officers, have ripped it apart.
The man sent out to sell the bill, Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre, has often cited a report former British Columbia chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld authored, touting it as proof some controversial proposals in the bill are necessary to preserve the integrity of Canada’s elections.
One problem , however, is Neufeld says the government has taken bits and pieces of his report out of context, misrepresenting his findings.
Among the contentious reforms proposed in C-23 is ending the current practices of vouching for someone without proper ID and accepting voter information cards received in the mail as appropriate proof of address. The government has argued those provisions open the system to fraud, citing Neufeld’s report as proof.
“It’s quite an interesting leap of logic,” Neufeld said in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark. “I think if vouching had been off the table, gone and I had done that report, maybe his focus then would have been on registration at the time of voting because actually in sheer numbers, there was at least twice as many irregularities with registration as there was with vouching.”
Undaunted, Poilievre told Tom Clark he and his Conservative colleagues have taken a very “reasonable” position in C-23.
WATCH: In the face of mounting criticism, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre defends the government’s Fair Elections Act.
“When someone shows up to vote, they should have some sort of ID to demonstrate who they are before they cast their ballot,” he said, further arguing Neufeld’s report suggested anti-fraud measures were “systematically violated” in the 2011 federal election.
Any current problem with Canada’s elections system, however, does not lie with voter fraud, Neufeld said.
“People impersonating themselves, that’s not the issue,” he said. There are some other issues with electoral fraud and influence, Neufeld added, but in terms individuals impersonating or falsely identifying themselves, the investigations he’s been part of suggest there’s only a small number of people doing that, and it’s generally elderly people who are confused or suffering from dementia.
In the most recent federal election, about 120,000 voters relied on vouching and another 400,000 used their voter information cards as proof of address — mostly those living on First Nations reserves, in old folks’ homes, long-term care facilities or student residences, Neufeld said.
Taking away those provisions could effectively disenfranchise each and every one of those communities, he warned.
Poilievre challenged that premise on the basis it assumes all 520,000 voters had no option except for vouching or using their voter information cards.
“The reason someone might have used a voter information card is because they were told it was allowed,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have used one of the other 39 forms of ID.”
Another controversial measure in C-23 is giving the incumbent MP or their party the power to appoint one of the top positions at polling stations, potentially adding a layer of partisanship at the polls.
Neufeld said there is no reasonable or rational explanation for that move. Even if it doesn’t change anything on the ground, it certainly gives the appearance of a conflict and potentially undermines Canadians’ confidence in the system, he said.
“It’s completely contrary to international best practise in electoral administration,” he said. “You don’t have partisans running the poll. You certainly have partisans there scrutinizing, watching, making sure it’s done properly, and that’s very appropriate.”