Senate panel to push for changes to proposed fair elections act

A Senate committee report is set to recommend substantial changes to the government's proposed fair elections act, including nixing a loophole in the bill that would allow fundraising calls to previous donors not to be counted as an election expense.

Conservative-dominated committee wants to remove election expense loophole thought to benefit Tories

A Senate committee conducting a 'pre-study' of Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre's proposed changes to the Elections Act has recommend several changes following expert testimony on the bill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A Senate committee report is set to recommend substantial changes to the government's proposed fair elections act, including nixing a loophole in Bill C-23 that would allow fundraising calls to previous donors not to be counted as an election expense.

The nine recommendations are said to be unanimously endorsed by all committee members, including the Conservative majority.

Removing the exemption for calls or solicitations to political donors who have previously given at least $20 is widely thought to benefit the major parties, especially the Conservatives. That exemption should be disallowed, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs says.

Another significant change recommends the Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada be allowed to continue the relationship with Student Vote or other electoral educational programs in elementary and high schools.

Elections Canada should also be able to inform the public of problems uncovered in the voting system, as the agency did when it realized misleading robocalls were occurring in the Ontario riding of Guelph last election..

Other changes recommend by the committee are: 

  • Encouraging Elections Canada to allow the use of verified electronic correspondence, or e-bills, as proof of address at polling stations rather than the current requirement for original hard copies.
  • Encouraging Elections Canada to put photographs of candidates on ballots for voters who have trouble reading
  • Authorizing communication between the Commissioner of Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer.
  • Extending the retention of robocall records by the calling service companies to three years from the one year proposed in the bill
  • Mandating that heads of institutions such as retirement homes, homeless shelters and reserves issue letters of attestation about proof of address for people who reside in those places.
  • Encouraging Elections Canada to inform those with vision loss about braille ballots

The changes the committee advises in respect to the public role of Elections Canada seem to fly in the face of sentiments voiced by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre.

Last week, Poilievre accused Elections Canada head, Marc Mayrand, of pursuing "more power, a bigger budget and less accountability" in his objections to some provisions in the election reform bill.

Pierre Poilievre comments on the report

Poilievre, in an interview Monday with the CBC's Terry Milewski, seemed to soften his stance when he said he was open to amendments that would make what he called a great bill even better. 

"This is a very smart group of people who sat around this committee room table.  They've done a very, very skilful study and I think we can only benefit from carefully considering their ideas," he said.

On the proposal to remove the fundraising exemption in the bill that would benefit wealthy political parties, Poilieve said he couldn't comment on a Senate report he's had no chance to study. But, he added, "I think the fair elections act provisions are reasonable and show common sense."

As far as allowing the use of e-bills as voter ID, Poilievre said he agreed with that recommendation. "I think the CEO needs to look at e-bills as a form of potential identification for people who no longer get their utility bills on their mailbox." 

Craig Scott, the NDP critic for democratic reform, told CBC he doesn't think any amendments can fix the fair elections act, a bill he says his party would like to see scrapped.

Minority proposals

A minority of Senate committee members, while endorsing the nine main recommendations, advocated several other changes such as allowing the use of voter information cards as ID, and allowing vouching to continue.

Vouching occurs when one registered voter attests to the identity of another voter who doesn't have ID.

The minority, consisting of three Liberal senators, also suggested the commissioner of Elections Canada be empowered to compel witnesses to testify in an investigation and be able to disclose information about investigations.

However, the majority of senators did not agree to the minority's recommendations.

The interim report, expected to be tabled this week, will be sent to the equivalent House of Commons committee to consider before starting its clause-by-clause evaluation of the bill.

Since it's a preliminary report, the Senate committee will continue hearing witnesses about proposed Election Act reforms.

The MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee could reject the Senate recommendations, but such a move would likely delay the government's promise to have the bill passed by June.