Conner Brown speaks out against the Fair Elections Act.
Gauntlet file photo/the Gauntlet

New bill to disenfranchise 120,000 voters

Student leaders, faculty criticize proposed changes to the electoral system

Publication YearIssue Date 

Student leaders and faculty have criticized the Fair Elections Act as outrageous and unnecessary, saying thousands of students will not be able to exercise their right to vote if the bill passes.

The Fair Elections Act was introduced to Parliament by Canada’s minister of state and democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre. Conservative MPs argue the bill will curb voter fraud and make elections more secure. However, student groups and academics say the bill will disenfranchise approximately 120,000 voters who used the vouching program last election, an initiative the Fair Elections Act will scrap if passed.

Vouching allows someone else to prove your residence if your ID says you live elsewhere. Groups who most often use vouching are students, aboriginals and those new to a city.

The bill will also cancel the voter identification card program, which allows citizens to apply for a temporary proof of residence during an election.

Students’ Union vice-president external Conner Brown said removing these two programs will make thousands of students ineligible to vote.

“Kind of a catch-22, right? They’re getting rid of vouching and they’re not going to continue with this pilot project for the voter identification cards,” Brown said.

Nineteen professors from universities around the world criticized the Fair Elections Act in an article published in the Globe and Mail on March 19. Academics from Harvard, Ohio State and Duke signed the article. If passed, they say the bill will “undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process.” Brenda O’Neill, head of the political science department at the University of Calgary, called the article “unprecedented.”

A group of 160 Canadian academics published a letter of their own in the National Post. O’Neill, one of six U of C signees, said fear-mongering is the driving force behind the bill.

“They’re making voter fraud this huge problem, when it really isn’t a huge problem. It’s a minor problem,” O’Neill said. “It’s about fear, and I find that extremely problematic.”

Canadian academics who signed the National Post article shared Brown’s concern over disenfranchisement.

They also think rule changes to campaign financing will increase the influence of money in Canadian politics. Individual donation limits will increase from $1,200 to $1,500 under the act, while candidate funding to their own campaigns will increase from $1,200 to $5,000. The Canadian academics say increased limits on individual donations will favour parties with a well established, wealthy base of donors.

O’Neill said the letter from Canadian academics is concerned with limits to democracy.

“I think it’s such a fundamental democratic institution. I mean you can make changes, but those changes should be grounded in research and grounded in experience. They shouldn’t be couched in fear-mongering when really what a lot of it is about ensuring that the Conservatives have an ability to increase their base,” she said.

The SU runs Get Out the Vote campaigns during elections. Brown said encouraging young people to vote is an important part of these campaigns.

“One thing we know is that if we get people to vote early, they become lifetime voters. And that’s one of the things that we’d really like to emphasize in this election,” Brown said.

If passed, the bill’s effects are expected to be felt in late 2015, just in time for the next federal election. The bill is currently in its second reading as of Feb. 10.