Canada's chief electoral officer says eliminating a registered voter's ability to vouch for another could impact more than 100,000 people, most of them aboriginals who live on reserves.

Last week, Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre unveiled the Conservative government's proposed changes to the Elections Act that he said were designed to increase penalties for rule-breakers while giving the elections commissioner greater independence to investigate infractions.

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand said a proposal to scrap the vouching provisions would affect more than 100,000 voters who, "for all sorts of circumstances," have difficulty obtaining proper pieces of identification.

Citizens most likely to be affected by that change are aboriginals who live on reserves who may be challenged to verify where they live because their home may not have a typical residential address.

Young people who are moving around a lot for school or new jobs also have trouble keeping their identification and other documents up-to-date, as do seniors who move into care facilities and may not have access to their papers.

"Vouching was designed to alleviate that and allow these citizens to cast a ballot, as all of their fellow citizens," Mayrand told CTV's Question Period in an interview that aired Sunday.

He also had concerns over limiting his office's ability to communicate with voters, saying it would be "a first around the world," and said the bill fails to give the elections commissioner the proper tools to enforce the country's election laws.

"It's certainly restricting the topics that we can discuss with Canadians. It's very clear that it's now limited to only three topics essentially: where you vote, when you vote, how you can be a candidate," Mayrand said.

"That's about what I see in the legislation. Anything else seems to be off limits, given the way the clause is drafted."

Mayrand said he also fears for a program Elections Canada runs that teaches some 300,000 students about politics, the parties and the electoral process, which culminates in a mock election.

"I think it's a great program, it's very well received by parents, by kids, by teachers, and it's unfortunate that my reading of the bill would not allow us to carry on with something like that," he said.

Mayrand says he is also concerned that the proposed changes don't include recommendations that he has been making to Parliament for years to address restrictions the elections commissioner faces when investigating complaints or other matters.

For example, Mayrand would have liked to see a provision in the new legislation that would give the commissioner the authority, with court approval, to compel people to produce documents and testify during an investigation.

"We're not talking about suspects in the matter. We're talking about people who have knowledge of certain events and that knowledge could be useful in conducting an investigation," Mayrand said.

"Increasingly, the commissioner has a problem getting people to voluntarily provide information. That impedes investigations and stalls investigations and certainly delays them."

Mayrand says he thought that his suggestion "was generally endorsed (but) obviously it's not when I read the bill. It is something that exists in other jurisdictions, so we would not have been breaking new ground on this."

The proposed legislation includes a number of changes, such as harsher penalties for those who break the rules and tighter ID requirements for voters.

The bill would:

  • raise the individual political donations limit from $1,200 to $1,500;
  • lift the ban on transmitting results on election night until the polls in the west;
  • give the elections commissioner a fixed seven-year term. In the future, the director of public prosecutions would appoint the commissioner, rather than the chief electoral officer as is the case now;
  • create a mandatory registry for all automated campaign phone calls, a measure designed to eliminate fraudulent robocalls;
  • increase penalties for impersonating an elections official.

The opposition says the changes will lead to voter suppression.

"One of the most important things to know is that almost everything the government says about the bill, it's the inverse," NDP MP Craig Scott told Question Period. "So in fact, encouraging voters is what they say, and a whole pile of votes are going to be suppressed."

The Conservatives moved to limit debate on the bill in the House before sending it to committee. Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc accused the government of wanting to ram the legislation through without opposition amendments.

"I think they're pretending to be interested in strengthening the Elections Act, when in fact there are a number of measures they're trying to pull over the eyes of Canadians that will in fact weaken election legislation," LeBlanc told Question Period. "That's their real agenda. And obviously the least time possible for that to be discussed the better for the government."

Conservative MP James Bezan argued that it will be at committee where the bill can be properly studied.

"We're trying to make sure that we get through second reading, let all parties have their chance to put their ideas onto the floor and then we'll get it into committee where we can get a really thorough study on the act, calling the proper witnesses and study it clause for clause," Bezan said.