Liberals table bill to roll back Conservative changes to Canadian voting process
Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, November 24, 2016 11:31AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, November 24, 2016 5:38PM EST
OTTAWA -- The Liberal government is throwing open the doors to voting in federal elections, including expanding the franchise to more than a million Canadians living abroad.
Maryam Monsef, the minister for democratic institutions, introduced legislation Thursday that will roll back a number of controversial changes to Canada's voting process.
That includes relaxing voter identification rules tightened by the previous Conservative government and restoring Elections Canada's mandate to educate and encourage electors.
The government is also proposing to significantly expand voting into previously uncharted waters by permitting any expatriate Canadian citizen who's ever lived in Canada to cast a ballot.
"We're removing barriers that never needed to be there in the first place," Monsef told a news conference.
The voting reforms come as an all-party Commons committee wraps up its hearings into an overhaul of Canada's electoral system, with recommendations due by the end of next week.
The Liberals promised during the 2015 election campaign that it would be the last held under Canada's traditional first-past-the-post voting system. But they've resisted calls for a national referendum on any fundamental change, such as a switch to a form of proportional representation in which a party's share of MPs in the Commons more closely matched its share of the popular vote.
Monsef repeated her concern Thursday that referendums are costly and "divisive" -- even as media reports suggested the committee may indeed recommend exactly that.
Marc Mayrand, the departing chief electoral officer, told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday that organizing a national referendum would take six months. It might also require a change to the Referendum Act, which currently applies only to constitutional matters and requires an question with a "yes" or "no" answer. Elections Canada then needs a full two years to implement any new voting system.
Ideally, he said a referendum should take place before next summer in order to be prepared for the scheduled October 2019 general election.
"There's still time to have it before the summer," said Mayrand. "Time is running out."
The reforms announced by Monsef on Thursday are much less fraught.
Prior to 1993, most Canadians living abroad -- with some exceptions, such as military and diplomatic postings -- were not allowed to vote. Since then, rules have limited voting rights to those who have spent no more than five continuous years living outside the country.
That provision is currently being challenged before the Supreme Court of Canada -- a case that appears likely to be dropped now that Liberal legislation proposes to make the legal issues moot.
Monsef called the current five-year limit for expatriate voters "relatively arbitrary" and said the new bill recognizes the value in the mobility of Canadians.
"Just because they're living abroad doesn't mean that they've forgotten about this place."
The Liberals are also breaking new ground by allowing Elections Canada to pre-register Canadian youths aged 14-17 in an effort to encourage voting once they turn 18.
But most of the seven voting changes in Monsef's bill reverse changes made under the controversial Fair Elections Act of 2014.
The Liberal bill would restore the ability of a voter to vouch for the identity of one other citizen in their polling area who lacks identification. And it will allow voters to use the ubiquitous voter information card -- which includes a person's address -- as a piece of identification.
The government said more than 172,000 Canadians who wanted to vote in last October's federal election reported being unable to do so because they lacked either photo ID with their current address or two pieces of corroborating ID with an address included.
The previous Conservative government tightened the rules in an effort to combat voter fraud, despite repeated investigations that failed to turn up verifiable incidents. Critics said the measures were aimed at suppressing the vote of people unlikely to support Conservative options.
"In the last election, we promised to repeal the anti-democratic elements of the former government's Fair Elections Act," Monsef said.
"Our legislation will make seven reforms that will break down unnecessary barriers to voting, while enhancing the efficiency and the integrity of our elections."
The new bill also places the commissioner of elections, who investigates election irregularities and fraud, back under the independent office of Elections Canada, rather than reporting to the public prosecutors office and, ultimately, the federal attorney general.
The Conservative changes were hotly debated and defended by the former government for the better part of a year, yet the official Opposition Tories didn't ask a single question about the new legislation during Thursday's question period in the House.
Conservative MP Blake Richards later described Monsef's proposed changes as "a distraction" from the more serious business of reforming the electoral system.
Those who opposed the Fair Elections Act lauded the Liberal effort to effectively gut the Conservative changes.
"This is a complete repudiation of the Harper government's efforts to bring U.S.-style voter suppression to Canada," Garry Neil of the Council of Canadians said in a release.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the advocacy group Democracy Watch also support the bill, although they'd like to see reforms go further.
Josh Patterson of the BCCLA noted the proposed vouching provisions remain overly restrictive and have not been fully returned to their pre-Conservative iteration.
The Liberal election platform also promised a suite of other electoral reforms, including limiting how much money political parties can spend between elections, reviewing spending limits during elections and creating an independent commission to organize leaders' debates during elections.
Monsef said those measures will come in later legislation.
"We're just getting started."
With files from Joan Bryden