VANCOUVER - Opposition continues to grow against efforts by the right-wing Conservative government of Stephen Harper to impose voter suppression legislation in Canada.
In "An Open Letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Parliament of Canada", 150 political scientists across Canada are calling on the Conservatives to reconsider key parts of Bill C-23. They claim that ending the practice of allowing one person to vouch for another person (used by 120,00 people in the 2011 elections) who does not have ID will only discourage voting and this change was never warranted because there is no evidence that people are misusing vouching to fraudulently vote. "By eliminating vouching, the Fair Elections Act would disenfranchise many of these citizens."
It criticizes the creation of the new Elections Commissioner in charge of investigating electoral fraud who will have no power to call witnesses or require parties to keep receipts or documents about spending, "which makes it impossible to ensure compliance with spending limits."
The letter charges that Bill C-23, which increases campaign donations from $1,200 to $1,500, allows fundraising as an election expense and permits candidates to donate $5,000 to their own campaigns, will only benefit large parties with big donor's lists and increase the role of big money in influencing electoral results. " Allowing money to influence electoral outcomes stands at stark odds with principles of political equality and democratic fairness. In contrast to our neighbor to the south, Canada has consistently recognized that allowing money into the political arena prevents those without financial backing from being heard and discourages participation when citizens perceive that the playing field of politics tilts toward wealth."
The letter criticized the legislation for barring Elections Canada [the independent, non-partisan agency responsible for conducting federal elections and referendums]from directly communicating with Canadians about electoral fraud or to promote voter participation. "Bizarrely, the Bill forbids Elections Canada from promoting democratic participation and voting through 'get out the vote' campaigns. Elections Canada would even be prevented from publishing its research reports on the electoral process. This gag on Elections Canada would make Canada an outlier among liberal democracies, instead of the global leader it now is."
More objections to Bill C-23
The political scientists object to Bill C-23 allowing political parties that came first in the last election to appoint poll supervisors to oversee elections in each polling station, rather than a neutral person selected by Elections Canada. "Electoral irregularities are often the result of partisan calculations by people working in polling stations."
The Conservatives said recently they will amend Bill C-23 to allow the Chief Elections Officer to speak his mind on election matters, however, they will not withdraw other proposed changes. The legislation in its current form muzzles the Chief Elections Officer. The Conservatives claim that Bill C-23, which they have dubbed "the Fair Elections Act", is intended to fight electoral fraud.
Leadnow [An independent advocacy organization that brings generations of Canadians together to achieve progress through democracy.]recently delivered 53,000 signatures collected online to Parliament calling on the Harper government to drop the legislation and has run radio ads. The group is planning to stage cross country demonstrations in front of the offices of Conservative Member's of Parliament (MPs) in ridings across Canada on March 25 "to stop the Conservative's new election law from making U.S. style voter suppression a part of Canadian law."
The center left New Democratic Party (NDP), the official opposition in Canada's Parliament, has launched a website "SaveYourVote.ca" to collect signatures online against the legislation and its MPs in Ottawa continue to filibuster the legislation to slow down passage. "Hundred of thousands of voters will be prevented from exercising their right to vote if Bill C-23 is adopted", stated leader Tom Mulcair. "There is a groundswell of opposition to this bill and we believe Canadians should be allowed to express themselves-and as elected officials, it is our duty to make sure they are heard."
"The Conservative refusal to hear from Canadians is a slap in the face. Stephen Harper is trying to skew the rules unilaterally to benefit his own party, a dangerous and unprecedented move in our democracy," said NDP Deputy leader David Christopherson. NDP MPs intend to fan out across Canada and hold their own public hearings on Bill C-23.
Critics are alarmed with the haste in which the Harper Conservatives are pushing through the 242-page bill. One day after introducing it to Parliament, the Conservatives-who control 54 percent of seats-moved a motion to limit debate. The Conservatives then refused opposition requests to hold public hearings on the bill, saying it would create a circus like atmosphere.
Parliament is on a break and debate on the bill is expected to resume in committee on March 25.
Critics believe that the Harper Conservative government is retaliating against Elections Canada for past conflicts.
Not the first accusation of rigging elections
This is not the first time the Harper Conservatives have been accused of rigging elections. In 2012, evidence emerged suggesting that the Conservative Party committed widespread election fraud to win the 2011 elections. Tens of thousands of automated phone calls were sent to non-conservative voters across Canada directing them to non-existent polling stations and altering voting results to favor Conservative party candidates. Elections Canada traced 7,000 of those phone calls to the telecommunications company Racknine in Alberta that does contract work for the Conservative Party.
Critics said the voter suppression scheme could not have been carried out without callers having access to the Conservative Party database on voters' intentions. The Conservatives are widely acknowledged to have the largest and most developed database on voters in Canada, identifying not only its own voters, but those of rival parties. Bill C-23 comes as Elections Canada is moving to conclude its investigation of the electoral fraud in the 2011 elections, dubbed "the robo call scandal", which could implicate the Conservative Party.
John Fryer, an adjunct professor of the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, and a winner of the Order of Canada, claimed that he attended a Conservative campaign school in 2010 where it was taught that misleading phone calls to suppress voting were acceptable. Fryer said in January 2010 he received an e-mail invite from the Manning Centre for Democracy to attend a campaign school: "Intrigued, I signed up for the three-day event. Topics covered included voter identification. Discussion ensued about suppression techniques. Instructors explained voter suppression tactics were borrowed from those used by the U.S. Republican Party," wrote Fryer in a letter published by the Vancouver Sun and Globe and Mail newspapers in 2011.
"Many kinds of suppression calls were canvassed. Another instructor gave detailed explanations of how robo-calls worked, techniques for recording messages plus costs involved. He distributed his business card upon request. Instructors made clear that robo-calling and voter suppression were perfectly acceptable and a normal part of winning political campaigns."
"The denials now expressed by the Prime Minister and his Parliamentary associates thus ring hollow if not something worse. Having attended this Campaign School it's obvious that for Conservatives voter suppression strategies are standard in their playbook on how to conduct elections."
"Having thus lowered their standard of election ethics to that of their Republican cousins it is hardly surprising that the result is a so-called majority government that was voted for by 39 percent of the 61 percent who managed to get to their proper polling station. A majority government supported by a mere 26 percent of Canadians," wrote Fryer.
Fryer claimed in an interview that in a question and answer session at the campaign school, attendees discussed voter suppression tactics. They talked about posing as a member of another party, and about making rude calls at inconvenient times as a strategy to get the supporter of another party to not go out and vote for their candidate.