Elections Act changes drawing scrutiny from Conservatives
Questions about bill to reform the Elections Act are coming from government's own caucus
A Senate committee report, tabled Tuesday, endorsed by Conservative committee members, calls for nine changes to the government's election reform bill, some of them substantial.
Also Tuesday, Conservative MP James Rajotte released a letter he sent to Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre about emails and phone calls from his constituents about the bill.
In his letter, Rajotte lists problems his constituents in the riding of Edmonton-Leduc have with the proposed legislation, including the curtailing of vouching, an expense exemption for calls to donors who've previously donated money to a political party, partisan appointments of polling day officials and the curbing of the ability of Elections Canada to attempt to increase voter turnout.
The fact that Rajotte's office has made the letter public is unusual.
Rajotte also tells Poilievre he personally supports the bill, and reproduces a form letter in which he confronts his constituents' concerns. Addressed to "Dear x," the response explains the fair elections act will crack down on voter fraud.
Conservative senators want changes
Conservative Senator Linda Frum, who endorsed the Senate committee's amendments of the bill, including one that suggests removing the fundraising exemption, said in a phone interview the committee felt it was not good to have what she called "areas of grey."
"The testimony that we heard is that you're into an area of grey when parties are making calls to fundraise versus when parties are making calls to promote their election activities."
Asked whether the government was on-side with the amendments, she replied, "We have not received any kind of assurances or promises."
Independent Liberal Senator George Baker, who is deputy chair of the committee, referred to the fundraising exemption as a "section which strongly favoured the Conservative Party, allowed them to raise more money than anyone else."
He added if the amendment is rejected by the Conservative-dominated House of Commons committee, "You run the risk of having that amendment put back in [by the Senate]."
Baker warned, in that case, the bill could conceivably "never pass in time for the next election."
The government wants to fast-track the bill so its complex changes will be in place for an expected October 2015 general election.
Role of Elections Canada
Another amendment suggested by the Senate committee permits Elections Canada to continue funding the organization Student Vote as well as other voter education programs in schools.
Frum, who recently wrote in the Globe and Mail that Elections Canada's dual missions to ensure the integrity of the voting process and also to promote voter turnout constitute a conflict of interest, defends her endorsement of the Senate amendments.
She said, "I see student education as being one kind of activity and I see the initiatives to increase voter turnout to be something quite different."
The Senate committee did not recommend the retention of vouching — where one registered voter vouches as to the identity and address of another voter.
Baker noted the independent Liberal senators on the committee wrote a minority report that defends vouching. He added that the elimination of vouching could be challenged in court as a violation of the charter guarantee of the right to vote.
The recommendation to keep vouching is available, he said, for members of the Commons committee to consider if they feel a need to "constitutionalize the bill."
The House of Commons committee has three days to consider the Senate amendments once politicians return from their Easter break. Both committees intend to hear from more witnesses..
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Tuesday his party's position is that the bill should be withdrawn, and that Poilieve is trying to backpedal away from his legislation "with the help of Conservative senators."
Mulcair added his MPs plan to instigate conversations with individual Conservative MPs, urging them to "listen to thousands and thousands of Canadians" and vote against the bill.