Stephen Harper's re-election strategy depends on a lot of you not voting. And if you mess with his plan by showing up at the polling station on Election Day, he's prepared for that, too: he's made it a lot harder for you to vote.
The prime minister has made it so much harder that "many tens of thousands" of Canadians may be denied their constitutional right to cast a ballot in the upcoming federal election, according to Harry Neufeld, former chief electoral officer for British Columbia.
In fact, the number of disenfranchised Canadians could actually be much higher, based on the evidence from a pilot project run by Canada's chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand.
Harper has mostly managed to avoid being accused of Republican-style voter suppression, and the lawsuits, among other tactics, employed to challenge voting lists stateside. But recent changes to Canada's election laws under the so-called Fair Elections Act will make it considerably more difficult for many low-income and marginalized Canadians to exercise their constitutional right. That could help Harper get re-elected in what is shaping up to be an extremely close election in October.
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Now, in a dramatic countermove with time running out, two public interest groups have gone to court seeking an injunction to block the new voting rules, which came into effect last December.
The Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students are urging the Ontario Superior Court to set aside key parts of the new voting rules, which they say will make it very difficult for many students, Aboriginals, the homeless, as well as disabled and elderly people living in care to establish proof of residency so they can vote. People moving to a new residence in the weeks prior to the election may also be affected. The injunction is set to be heard in the first week of July.
According to the groups, a mere 6,201 votes across 14 ridings handed the Conservative party a majority in 2011. Even though he's had the support of less than 40 per cent of Canadians, Harper has held power for almost a decade by focusing on getting out the vote among his loyal base, who tend to be older and more affluent.
The Conservatives put the new election laws in place ostensibly in response to the national outcry over the robocall scandal, in which party operatives were accused of using automated phone calls to direct non-Conservative voters to the wrong polling stations on election day. The misleading calls were reported in ridings across the country and appeared to be targeted based on information from closely guarded Conservative party data.
In the end, only one person, Conservative staffer Michael Sona, who worked on a local campaign in Guelph, was convicted and jailed. However, in his verdict, Judge Gary Hearn wrote that "the evidence indicates he did not likely act alone."
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The scandal raised the extremely serious question of whether the governing party had deliberately undermined the legitimacy of election results. Surely what was needed was a thorough investigation and a tightening of the election laws to ensure no such thing ever threatened our democracy again.
What we got instead was a bait-and-switch that the Conservatives have turned to their advantage. They overhauled the election laws all right, but the new laws did nothing to prevent the sort of treachery involved in the robocall scandal. If anything, they make it tougher to uncover robocall-style deception in the future by preventing the release of details about investigations conducted by Elections Canada.
Having ignored the very real problem presented by the robocall scandal, the Harperites instead focused on clamping down on an imaginary problem -- people voting multiple times, which is not a problem at all, as Neufeld states in an affidavit in support of the court injunction.
Pretending that they were addressing this non-problem, the Harperites overhauled the election laws in ways that will make it harder for voters to confirm their identity instead.
Confirming your identity and address for the purpose of voting is very simple -- if you have a driver's licence, which includes both your photograph and your address. That's all you need.
But for those without a driver's licence -- including many low-income, disabled people or those moving from one location to another -- it's more complicated. They need two pieces of ID, including something establishing their address, which is not included, for instance, in health cards or passports.
This problem of establishing one's address could be easily solved by allowing voters to use voter information cards (VIC). The government-issued cards, which are sent to voters' homes before an election, tell them where to vote. The cards include voters' addresses.
In a pilot project administered by Canada's chief electoral officer during the 2011 election, polling stations serving seniors' residences, long-term care facilities, Aboriginal reserves and student residences permitted voters to use their VICs, along with another piece of ID, to vote. Approximately 400,000 voters -- almost half those eligible -- used their VICs to vote.
Yet, unbelievably, the new election laws actually ban this practice, raising the question of whether many of these 400,000 people will simply lose the right to vote in the upcoming election.
Harper's new election laws also throw fresh obstacles in the path of the homeless. In the past, homeless people or those with little or no identification were able to vote by having another registered voter vouch for them. The Harper government has now made this option much more complicated and difficult.
Neufeld notes that the vouching process could have been replaced with a simple procedure -- requiring the voter to make a signed declaration, which would provide a paper trail in the event the person's vote was later questioned. Instead, the new rules replaced vouching with procedures that Neufeld describes as "more cumbersome to administer and even more difficult for voters to understand."
Apathy on the part of the electorate is Stephen Harper's best shot at winning the next election. But should apathy let him down, he's ready with his backup plan to deprive thousands of our most vulnerable citizens of their most basic democratic right.
This column was first published in Now Magazine.