Amend election reform bill or kill it, Harry Neufeld says

Harry Neufeld, the author of the report often cited by government officials to support changes proposed to Canadian election laws, says the government has to amend its election reform bill or kill it.

Author of report cited by MP Pierre Poilievre warns hundreds of thousands could be disenfranchised

Expert says election reform bill must be amended

9 years ago
Duration 2:56
The federal government has cited an Elections Canada report to back its proposed changes to electoral laws, but the report's author says it's being misinterpreted and quoted selectively

Harry Neufeld, the author of the report often cited by government officials to support its proposed changes to Canadian election laws, says the government has to amend its election reform bill or kill it.

The elections expert also fears half a million people could be disenfranchised based on changes included in the Conservative government's Bill C-23, he told reporters following his appearance before the procedure and House affairs committee Thursday.

"Either amend it or pull it," Neufeld said of the bill after laying out a number of concerns.

"To me, it appears like they're trying to tilt the playing field in one direction," Neufeld said of C-23.

Asked in which direction, he replied, "Their direction."

The bill was tabled last month by Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform.

Poilievre and other Conservative MPs have argued Canada's election system is ripe for voter fraud and that there were 165,000 irregularities, including 50,000 linked to vouching, in the 2011 federal election, citing a report by Neufeld.

Poilievre proposes in the bill eliminating vouching at polling stations, in which a person without proper proof of address can be sworn to live in the riding and be allowed to vote. He also proposes eliminating the use of voter information cards, which are mailed to people on the voters list ahead of election day. The Conservatives say the cards are riddled with errors and provide people a way to cheat by presenting cards they've fished out of the garbage.

Neufeld, who has challenged Poilievre's interpretation of his report, said the changes to vouching and the use of voter information cards risk disenfranchising more than 500,000 Canadians.

"This is a fundamental right. It's guaranteed by the charter. It's guaranteed by international treaties. You have the right to vote," Neufeld said.

No proof of fraud

Elections Canada piloted a program in 2011 that saw 400,000 people use their voter information cards as proof of residence. The agency allowed students, on-reserve First Nations voters and people in long-term care facilities — many of whom don't have a driver's licence or other proof of residence — to use the cards to prove their addresses.

"If those 400,000 people cannot use the [voter information] card to prove their address, what's their option to be? There's no ability to vouch, according to C-23, so they're disenfranchised," Neufeld told reporters following the committee, calling the voter information card "a valid piece of ID."

Between eliminating the voter information cards and vouching, Neufeld said, "To me, that math is 520,000 people" who could lose the right to vote. Even with "a really rigorous advertising campaign," he said, "you might get half those people to show up with ID so you're looking at at least a quarter of a million people who won't be allowed to vote."

Neufeld told the committee that he never linked vouching to voter fraud, although he agrees the election system has to be modernized.

Neufeld said there are several ways to fix vouching. In cases where a voter has two pieces of ID without their address, for example, they could sign a declaration swearing to where they live. 

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has said eliminating vouching would disenfranchise tens of thousands of people, a fear former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley echoed.

During the committee meeting, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole pulled out his wallet and rifled through his identification, repeating "Acceptable" after every piece on the list of 39 forms of identification Elections Canada accepts.

"Which one's got your address?" Neufeld asked him. 

O'Toole didn't answer.

'Unlevel playing field'

In his scrum with reporters, Neufeld pointed to the problem with most pieces of identification.

Elections expert Harry Neufeld says the Conservatives appear to be attempting to tilt the playing field in their direction. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
"I can pull all my ID out too, but if I put my driver's licence aside, I don't have anything that proves my address," he said.

Neufeld also addressed other problems he sees with the bill, including a provision that would let incumbents choose the officials who work at polling stations.

"It's an unlevel playing field.  It makes people wonder whether this process is really being administered in a completely neutral way," Neufeld said.

Although Neufeld said Poilievre is "selectively" reading his report, in question period, Poilievre said he "accurately and in context" quotes Neufeld's report. 

"Mr. Neufeld is entitled to author recommendations, he is not entitled to author the law. That is left to parliamentarians. And at no time did I ever claim to agree with his recommendations. I don't agree with them, and that's why they're not in the bill," Poilievre said.

Room for changes

Neufeld wasn't the only person to recommend changes to the committee. A panel of four experts on promoting democracy suggested there be amendments before Parliament moves ahead with it.

Alison Loat, who runs Samara Canada, Student Vote's Taylor Gunn, Fair Vote Canada's Nathalie Des Rosiers — who is also dean of the University of Ottawa's civil law program — and Graham Fox of the Institute for Research on Public Policy all said they would like to see changes made to the bill.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May asked whether it was important to remove the bill's provisions on vouching, voter information cards and on limiting the issues on which the head of Elections Canada can speak.

"If those pieces aren't improved before passage, would you believe C-23, the so-called fair elections act, will help or hurt the health of Canadian democracy?" May said.

All four said there is room for improvement.

"There's a lot of room for important changes to the bill, but I think if those changes come through it will help," Fox said.

"There's some good aspects but lots of opportunity for improvement," Loat added.

'Machiavellian intrigue'

In the Commons, Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux attempted to convince the Speaker that Hawn had “deliberately intended to mislead the House,” after Hawn told MPs Monday evening that he'd been offered ill-gotten voter information cards in 2006. Lamoureux compared the case to the controversy surrounding similar statements made, and then retracted, by Conservative MP Brad Butt.

Hawn seemed unflustered by the attack, telling MPs, “my honourable friend gives me far too much credit for Machiavellian intrigue."

House Speaker Andrew Scheer said there was no evidence that Hawn had "knowingly said anything that he knew at the time not to be true."

With files from Kady O'Malley