Groups in a court challenge are accusing the Harper government of trying to import U.S.-style voter suppression tactics for political gain ahead of the next federal election.
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The Canadian Federation of Students, represented by Jessica McCormick, among others, and the Council of Canadians, led by its chair, Maude Barlow, sought an injunction in Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Thursday on key elements of the Fair Elections Act.
The move is ostensibly to allow the chief electoral officer to have his former discretion to determine who can vote in the federal election slated for Oct. 19.
As it stands, Barlow said Thursday, the changes will make it more difficult for students, the homeless, First Nations people and the elderly to vote.
"So this is just a way of blocking all sorts of people — the ones least likely to vote for the Harper government," said Barlow.
Lawyer Stephen Shrybman laid out the case for the applicants, citing affidavits from expert testimony that attack new provisions that became law in June 2014. The new laws disallow use of the voter information card as proof of identification to vote, created a much more onerous vouching system and include provisions that reduce the chief electoral officer's ability to educate people on voting, or for that matter, investigate electoral wrongdoings.
"I can't just show up and say, 'I'm Steven Shrybman,'" said the lawyer who also represented the Council of Canadians in its fight to overturn the 2011 election results due to fraudulent robocalls. "The returning officer will say, 'Where's your other ID?'"
Not everyone has a driver's licence
Shrybman said that if you have a driver's licence, and you're living at the address on the licence, you'll be OK.
"But we know that 15 per cent of Canadian voters don't have driver's licences, and that's 20 per cent among young voters."
Changes to the act, he contends, will make it difficult to vote for those who move during an election (an estimated 250,000), those who used the voter identification card in the 2011 election (400,000), and those who used vouching in 2011 (120,000).
Shrybman told Judge David Stinson that his expert, former B.C. chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld, believes a third of those, roughly 250,000, will not be able to vote in the upcoming election.
Lawyers for the attorney general will respond Friday in the scheduled two days of arguments, followed by a rebuttal by Shrybman.
Outside court, Barlow said that if 6,000 voters in 14 ridings had voted differently in the last election, Harper would not have had a majority.
"So those votes matter," said Barlow. "They should matter to all Canadians, no matter who they politically support."
With only 61 per cent of eligible voters voting in the last election, she said, Canada needs as much voter encouragement as possible.
"This goes in the total opposite direction," Barlow said.
Students have difficulty voting
McCormick, representing the students federation, said students have difficulty voting because they move frequently — and the changes will make voting more difficult.
Students are notoriously underrepresented in elections. About 1.9 million youth didn't vote in the last election, McCormick said, and of those who did, 62 per cent took advantage of a pilot project to allow students to use the voter information cards as proof of identity.
Those who are not allowed to vote because they don't have two pieces of ID — one proving who they are, and another proving where they live — will have no recourse on election day, McCormick said.
"It's so important we get a decision on this injunction," she said. "Because if we don't have these provisions in place to ensure people can cast a vote, it calls into question, potentially, the outcome of the next federal election."
Conservatives and proponents of the law argue its measures were necessary to crack down on voter fraud and end the vouching system permitted in previous elections.
But critics say the Fair Elections Act is a continuation of other controversial election tactics employed by the Conservatives in past votes.
Conservative officials were sanctioned for their roles in the so-called "in-and-out" scheme that helped the party spend more money than allowed during the 2006 election, and a Conservative staffer was convicted for helping send out robocalls during the 2011 election, which were seen as an effort to confuse and dissuade voters from turning out to the polls.
Many of the tactics used in the last few elections have mimicked the tactics of U.S. Republicans. Making voter ID more difficult to get was first conceived by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group founded by conservative Americans.
The U.S. group says it advocates for tightening up on voter fraud, but stricter ID requirements limit students, the poor, young voters, minorities and seniors — all of whom are less likely to vote Republican.
"This is the kind of voter suppression that we've seen in the Deep South in the United States, promoted by Republicans," Barlow added. "What's at stake is a real issue of democracy for Canadians."
Shrybman told the judge that Canada's chief electoral officer can make changes to already printed voter information cards if the injunction decision is made by July 20. Stinson agreed to have his decision by then.
A complete list of accepted forms of ID can be found on the Elections Canada website.