Why we're still talking about the phantom threat of voter fraud

Much depends on how you view the actual threat of voter fraud - and whether you think eliminating that threat is worth making it harder for some Canadians to vote.

We've been hearing rumours of widespread fraud for ages. They never seem to pan out.

A woman enters Maple High School in Vaughan, Ont., to cast her vote in the Canadian federal election on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

After the Liberal government tabled its proposed changes to federal elections law, the Conservatives started issuing new warnings about the spectre of voter fraud.

The Liberals, said Conservative MP Blake Richards, "are trying to force through changes in Bill C-76 that would make up to one million votes susceptible to fraud in the election."

That certainly is a lot of potential for fraud. But much depends on how you view the actual threat of fraud — and whether you think eliminating that hypothetical threat is worth making it harder for some Canadians to vote.

Richards' line of thinking goes something like this:

Bill C-76 would allow the chief electoral officer to designate the voter information card — that oversized postcard that Elections Canada mails out to registered voters with information on where and when they can vote — as a valid piece of documentation for confirming an individual's address at a federal polling station.

But those cards sometimes contain errors. According to statistics released by the government in 2016, 986,613 voter information cards had to be corrected and reissued during the last federal election.

An unscrupulous individual could have used one of those erroneous cards to vote more than once, or to vote in the wrong riding.

That's the theory, anyway.

A short history of fraud rumours

Richards is effectively reviving an argument the Conservatives made in 2014, when they had a governing majority and used it to ban the card from the list of acceptable forms of identification.

Back then, New Democrats, Liberals and elections officials all argued that doing so would make voting harder for citizens who could not otherwise easily prove their addresses — people like university students, the elderly in assisted living centres and some Indigenous voters.

Partisans have been fretting about the possible misuse of the voter information card for more than a decade. But so far, we seem to have only one confirmed instance of voter fraud: in 2013, two Montrealers were admonished for using multiple cards to acquire ballots in two ridings (they filmed their exploits for a Radio-Canada program).

During debate on the Fair Elections Act in 2014, Conservative MP Brad Butt stood in the House and insisted that he had "actually witnessed other people picking up the voter cards" and using them to commit fraud. Three weeks later, he returned to the House to admit that he had not actually witnessed the alleged fraud. (He'd only heard about it.)

Harry Neufeld, the former chief electoral officer in British Columbia, said he's been hearing horror stories about people being bused into ridings to steal elections for as long as he's been involved in managing elections. None of those stories has ever been substantiated.

Brison outlines some changes to the Elections Act

4 years ago
Duration 1:29
Acting Democratic Reform Minister Scott Brison lay out some of the proposed changes in a new bill tabled on Monday

There must be easier ways to steal an election

Now, it's conceivable that someone else, somewhere, has misused a voter information card without getting caught (Elections Canada says it reviews its records after each election to check for double-voting). But when considering hypothetical fraud, it's necessary to consider the practicalities.

A voter information card can be used to confirm your address, but it can only be used to cast a ballot when accompanied by another piece of identification (Elections Canada maintains a list of acceptable documentation).

If you managed to obtain a voter information card in your own name, but with your previous address on it, you could try to vote in both your current and former ridings. But if you received or acquired a card in someone else's name, you'd still have to either fake a second piece of ID or get a registered voter to vouch for you at the polling station.

But to actually have an impact, you and a crew of co-conspirators would then have to repeat the fraud in sufficient numbers to swing the result in a particular riding. In 2015, for instance, just four ridings were decided by fewer than 100 votes and just 13 ridings were within 500 votes.

Neufeld points out that all those people faking votes would also have to be willing to risk a fine or imprisonment.

"If you really want your candidate to win, aren't there, like, 50 better ways to do this with far less risk?" asked Neufeld, who added he's not worried about voter information cards somehow compromising the next election.

Chris Hall also sits down with the acting Minister of Democratic Institutions, Scott Brison, to dissect the government's bill to modernize the country's election laws.

Weighing the evidence

​Based on survey data, Marc Mayrand, the former federal chief electoral officer, has suggested thousands of eligible voters may have failed to cast a ballot in 2015 because they weren't able to prove where they lived. And testifying before a House committee in 2014, he argued that the unsubstantiated threat of fraud must be weighed against the need to preserve citizens' ability to vote.

"At the end of the day, what this committee has to decide ... is whether in the absence of any strict evidence of significant abuse of the system, it is worth disenfranchising several thousand electors," he said.

Blake Richards remains unconvinced. He said he has seen no documented case of someone being unable to vote for lack of a voter information card, something he insists must be weighed against the error rate.

"There are currently 39 types of ID that are available to people," Richards said. "And I find it really hard to imagine that somebody wouldn't have one of those forms, but would have a correct voter information card. And so, why would you open it up to something with so many errors when there doesn't really seem to be any rationale for needing it?"

In opposing the Liberal bill this week, Conservative MP John Nater argued that Canadians need to meet strict identification standards to drive a car, board a plane, buy cigarettes or alcohol, go fishing, or get a student discount on the train.

But then, no one has a right to do any of those things. Voting, on the other hand, is a right.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP's Democratic Reform critic, and Blake Richards, the Democratic Institutions critic for the Conservatives, join The House.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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