CWP Speaks Out Against the Federal Elections Act on the Hill

Yesterday, CWP’s Executive Director, Leilani Farha, spoke at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on Parliament Hill against the Fair Elections Act (Bill C-23).  In defence of the right to vote, and in protecting the interest of the most marginalized in our society, CWP has taken a stand against this Bill and believes it is undemocratic in nature.

Read Leilani’s full presentation below:

Submissions on the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23

Procedure and House Affairs Committee

2 April 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to appear as a witness in these hearings.

I’m Leilani Farha, Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty. CWP is a national anti-poverty organization with a 43-year history of bringing the voices and experiences of poor people to Parliament and other public forums. CWP’s Board is made up of poor people living in every province and territory in the country offering us a broad view of poverty issues from first-hand experiences.

The Fair Elections Act is of real concern to us and to our constituents.  It sits squarely with the government’s ongoing attempts to shut poor people out of democratic spaces.

With regards to Bill C-23, we are particularly concerned about the stripping of Elections Canada of its mandate to promote voting, particularly for those less likely to vote, including poor people and the elimination of vouch voting under this Bill.

It is on these two issues that I will focus my comments this evening.

1.        Promoting Voting

Currently The Canada Elections Act says that “the Chief Electoral Officer may implement public education and information programs to make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly to those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic right”.  Elections Canada used this mandate to undertake targeted, non-partisan, public education campaigns to encourage disadvantaged groups to participate in our democracy by exercising their right to vote.  With the implementation of Bill C-23, Elections Canada will only be allowed to communicate information about how to become a candidate, and where and when people can vote.

It was reported in the media that this Government wants to leave the promotion of voting up to those running for election.  This grossly narrows the concept and value of voting.  Voting is about so much more than politics.  Poor people (and this might also be true of young people) need to feel like they have a voice in our democracy and that their voice matters. They need to understand the deep importance of voting particularly when you live in disadvantage. That it is as much about social citizenship, about affirming the principle of democracy and participating in it, as it is about choosing a government.

For these reasons CWP recommends that the provisions narrowing Elections Canada’s mandate in this regard be removed from Bill C-23.

 2.        Vouch Voting

We know that approximately 120,000 people vouch voted in the last federal election.  We know less about what circumstances gave rise to their vouch voting. Let me take this opportunity to provide some insight into whom some of these vouch voters might be.  And I ask the sitting Government to pay close attention to this, as you seem to find it incredible that people in Canada may not have access to the 39 types of allowable pieces of identification for voting purposes. However, I’ll tell you, if you work with people who are homeless or living in poverty in Canada like I have for the past 13 years, it’s actually quite easy to understand and believe.

The lack of government issued ID and ID attesting to place of residence is a well known problem amongst homeless people.  (In fact, it’s been reported that the lack of ID was cause for 500,000 people to not vote in the last election). Take for example a woman victim of domestic violence, who after a particularly brutal beating by her husband, escapes to a friend’s house. She leaves behind her purse.  She has no photo ID, no proof of residence, nothing. A transient homeless person who is in and out of shelters, living intermittently on the streets. His ID was stolen at the first hostel he stayed at.  He isn’t comfortable asking the “responsible authority” at the shelter where he’s been staying for a couple of nights for a letter of attestation.  An Aboriginal person living in Northern Canada, has no acceptable identification because she receives no bills in her name, there is no local library, and her band council wont make available the necessary document.  But she is known by everyone in her community. On election day, each of these people might want to vote, but if the Fair Elections Act is adopted as-is, they will each be denied this right: a woman leaving domestic violence, a homeless person living on the streets and in shelters, and an Aboriginal person in Northern Canada.

I know Minister Poilievre wants you to believe that vouch voters can easily provide one or two of the 39 types of ID to prove their identity and where they live.  But as you can see from my examples, he is wrong. The people in my examples could not.

You see, people’s lives are sometimes messy and fraught, and don’t always correspond with the tidy lists we compile in our offices or in the Committees of Parliament.  Sometimes that may not matter that much. But in this instance it does. Because we’re dealing with a fundamental tenet of democracy and a basic right contained in Section 3 of our Charter: the right to vote.

What makes the elimination of vouch voting so egregious and a potential violation of the Charter, is that not only could it result in denying entitled Canadian citizens the right to vote, it could deny this right to the very disadvantaged groups our Charter is explicitly meant to protect under section 15.  Imagine being the woman I described earlier. She manages against all odds to get herself out of a life threatening situation. She is facing all sorts of adversity, but she wants to vote. And she can’t. Why? Because Minister Poilievre has forgotten that she too is a citizen who wants to be more than just her circumstances, who wants to engage with her nation, who wants the dignity of the right to vote.

The Government’s disregard for the most disadvantaged people in Canada has been acute in these debates.  In particular, Minister Poilievre has erroneously conflated vouching ‘irregularities’ with fraud’.  I remind this Committee, no evidence of fraud has been found with vouch voting.  The irregularities identified in the Neufeld report were administrative errors, a very different thing from electoral fraud constituting criminal behaviour.

And so, with abysmal voter turnout, particularly among disadvantaged groups who feel increasingly disenfranchised from their democracy, instead of dealing with the democratic deficit, Bill C-23 increases it by inventing the myth of fraud.

If it’s agreed – and I think it is – that the current system of vouch voting is imperfect resulting in “irregularities”, what should be done?

CWP recommends that the Government stop talking for a moment and reflect on the fact that it is about to rob tens of thousands of disadvantaged Canadians of their democratic citizenship. 

Maintain vouching. Work collaboratively with Elections Canada to fix the vouch voting system so that it functions more effectively.

In a true democracy, all voices matter.

Thank you.

*To watch Leilani speak at PROC, click here.

A drop hitting water.
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