Harper’s unfair Elections Act must be stopped

Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Stephen Harper is trying to rewrite the rules around elections in Canada, and we can’t afford to let him get away with it.

The prime minister won a majority government in 2011 with 39 per cent of votes, which were cast by a mere 61 per cent of eligible voters. He doesn’t need either of those numbers to go up to hold on to power in the next election, expected in 2015. In fact, he’d likely fare better if voter turnout goes down. So if you’re not an identified Conservative Party supporter, or someone Harper’s party thinks can be swayed with the micro-targeted direct appeals they’ve perfected, they couldn’t care less.

The Conservatives make no secret of their vast and state of the art database that keeps track of voter contact and preference information, allowing them to pinpoint potential supporters and craft their messages accordingly. What the party doesn’t advertise is the flip side to this electoral coin: direct or indirect attempts to reduce voter turnout amongst those likely to vote for their opposition.

In the United States, these practices have come to be understood as voter suppression, and the Conservatives’ ideological brothers in the Republican Party have infamously mastered these techniques.

The 2011 federal election offered alarming evidence that these toxic, anti-democratic strategies have come north. The so-called “robocalls” scandal involves reports of scores of identified non-Conservative voters receiving calls directing them to the wrong voting location. These fraudulent calls were ordered up by one “Pierre Poutine.”

An Elections Canada investigation is currently underway into robocalls and electoral fraud in the riding of Guelph, Ontario. One Conservative campaign worker, Michael Sona, has been charged, while his former colleague Andrew Prescott has turned state’s witness in exchange for immunity. The Guelph Conservative campaign manager, Ken Morgan, has refused to speak to investigators and is currently out of the country, reportedly teaching in Kuwait City.

This sordid episode provides vital context for understanding the current debate over Harper’s efforts to overhaul Canada’s elections laws through the Orwellian-named ‘Fair Elections Act.’ This is raising alarm across the political spectrum, amongst Elections Canada officials themselves, and from senior public servants who rarely weigh in on specific legislation.

Last week, for example, former auditor general Sheila Fraser blasted the Conservatives’ Bill C-23 as “an attack on democracy.” If it goes through without major amendments, Fraser worries “it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”

There are a couple of key reasons why C-23 would be better called the unfair Elections Act. First of all, this bill would weaken Elections Canada. Almost unbelievably, it would prevent the independent body from engaging in campaigns to encourage voting. Worse yet, the Commissioner of Elections will have less authority to investigate electoral infractions.

So basically, the party that has done everything it can, at the local and national level, to avoid getting to the bottom of the robocalls electoral fraud scandal in 2011 is now rewriting the rules under which the 2015 election will be held. Harper has chutzpah, you have to give him that.

Furthermore, Bill C-23 proposes scrapping voter identification cards and eliminating the practice of having someone vouch for a voter’s identity. The Conservatives say these measures will reduce voter fraud. But they’ve been making the case for the changes with made up or misrepresented evidence. During debate in Parliament, Conservative MP Brad Butt twice recounted how he had personally seen people retrieving discard voter cards from the garbage so that they could reuse them fraudulently. It turns out Butt just made that story up, and he was forced to retract it.

The changes the Conservatives are proposing, based on fictitious evidence like Butt’s, could have very real consequences. No less than Harry Neufeld, the author of the report that the Conservatives are using to justify Bill C-23, has warned that hundreds of thousands of people could have a harder time voting if the bill goes through unamended. Neufeld has accused Pierre Poilievre, Harper’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform, of “selectively reading and quoting from [his] report.”

Now, there’s no such thing as a truly fair election in an unequal, capitalist society, where corporations and the super-rich have so many tools to distort and undermine democracy. But the current moves by the Harper government are brazenly anti-democratic, an attempt by a bully to rewrite the rules in order to improve his chances of staying in power.

As I’ve written about at length, the alternatives to Harper currently on offer are woefully insufficient. However, it’s still essential that we oust him from office. And it’s imperative that we defend our democratic rights.

Harper’s unfair Elections Act must be stopped.

For more information on campaigns against Bill C-23, check out LeadNow.ca and Canadians.org