Rally targets Fair Elections Act

Matt
Matt Gardner
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Preventing controversial changes to Canada’s election laws was the focus of a rally outside Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback’s office on Tuesday.

Approximately 30 people attended the local demonstration as part of a national day of action called “Let People Vote!” opposing changes in Bill C-23, also known as the Fair Elections Act. Leadnow.ca, the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students helped organize and co-ordinate the nationwide rallies.

Speakers at the Prince Albert rally included local organizer Terra Lennox-Zepp and Council of Canadians member Rick Sawa, who strongly criticized what protesters mockingly referred to as the “Unfair Elections Act.”

“This bill and the Unfair Elections Act is overtly designed to secure strategic partisan advantage for the party that lies behind the government,” Lennox-Zepp said.

“In other words, this bill is biased -- and a biased law is particularly repugnant when the bill is about how people can vote.”

Addressing the assembled crowd, Lennox-Zepp identified four contentious changes in the proposed Fair Elections Act, which is currently under review in the House of Commons and will soon head to committee.

Those changes would include the elimination of vouching for voters, permitting volunteers from political parties to examine voter identification, modifications to fraud investigations and raising the limits for political donations and election spending by each party.

Under current legislation, a voter without proof of their address or who has recently moved may have another registered voter from their polling area vouch for their identity by signing a lawful declaration.

The Fair Elections Act would eliminate both this option and the use of the voter identity card, which protesters said would disproportionately affect certain demographics less likely to vote for the Conservatives.

“Who moves a lot? Students … young people,” Lennox-Zepp said. “Who moves a lot? Homeless people. First Nations people are the demographic that most often use vouching.

“So it is a strategic decision by the federal Conservatives,” she added. “This isn’t an accident. This isn’t just an idea that came out of thin air. This is something strategic, prior to the next federal election, to make sure that their voters have strength … and that people who don’t customarily vote Conservative often (do not).”

Speaking via phone from Ottawa, Hoback argued that strengthening voter ID requirements would make the electoral process less susceptible to fraud.

Comparing the process of voting to signing a book out of a library, he noted that voters have 39 different options for identification at the voting booth.

While demonstrators had expressed concern about homeless voters, an attestation of stay or letter of residence from a soup kitchen or shelter is considered valid ID.

“We have to use ID for all sorts of things,” Hoback said. “If you drive a car, you have a piece of ID. If you go to the doctor’s office, you have a health card. It’s a piece of ID. So why would you expect to go vote and not present a piece of ID?”

Where voter identification is concerned, a key issue for protesters in the Fair Elections Act was the ability of political party volunteers to examine voter ID.

Lennox-Zepp described the proposed change as “preposterous,” going far beyond the lack of training of party volunteers in contrast to elections officials.

“Political party volunteers are not impartial and they may target certain voters,” she said. “That means when you or I go to vote, a political person who’s not impartial could walk up and examine your credentials and make a complaint.

“This could intimidate voters. It’s very frightening … This means allowing a candidate’s representative to stand between the voter and the ballot box, and that’s not right.”

Another concern of protesters was the elimination of funding for Elections Canada ad campaigns such as StudentVote that encourage voting.

Hoback argued that the primary role of Elections Canada is putting resources into running fair elections.

“Political parties are working hand over fist to make sure they get out their vote,” he said. “That’s already happening, so this is a double-up of activities that are already going on and I think Elections Canada’s resources are better served ensuring that the election is done in a fair and credible manner.”

Changes in the power of elected officials to investigate fraud was a major focus of remarks by Council of Canadians member Rick Sawa.

Noting the Council’s opposition to the Fair Elections Act, Sawa said the legislation “fails to give the Commissioner of Elections the authority to compel witnesses to give evidence.”

This bill and the Unfair Elections Act is overtly designed to secure strategic partisan advantage for the party that lies behind the government. Terra Lennox-Zepp

He pointed to a statement by Commissioner Yves Cotes suggesting that his investigation of 1,400 false or misleading telephone calls to electors in the 2011 federal election (the alleged “robocalls” scandal) had been hampered by his inability to legally compel witnesses.

But Hoback argued that powers to compel witness testimony rest primarily within the judicial system.

“In a criminal investigation, police don’t have the power to compel testimony,” he noted. “Only the court has the power to subpoena witnesses or to compel testimony once charges have been laid as basically part of a trial.

“So (you) can’t give the commissioner of Canada elections more power than what the police have. You have to give them similar powers.”

Sawa, however, went on to list other similar criticisms of the legislation.

The Fair Elections Act, he said,  “requires the Commissioner to inform a politician in writing if they are to be investigated for a breach of election laws, a statutory heads-up not provided to anyone else in broader society,” even as it “muzzles the Chief Electoral Officer from making allegations of electoral fraud public.”

Hoback highlighted the need for an independent third-party observer in such cases.

“For example, if I had a problem with what’s going on … in the riding of Prince Albert in one of the polling stations with how Elections Canada’s handling things -- if they’re the judge, trial and jury, how do I make a legitimate concern known?” he asked.

“That’s why you need the third person to take complaints to so you have an independent person, so if there’s an issue or a concern, they actually do the investigation, not the people that are actually putting on the election.”

Sections of the Act involving political donations and campaign spending also came under fire from demonstrators, who argued that the Conservatives stood to benefit the most of any party from the removal of certain limits.

The Fair Elections Act would raise the limits on political donations by 25 per cent from $1,200 to $1,500, while increasing the election-spending limits for each party by five per cent.

Hoback noted that Canada already has limits in place regarding the amount of money that may be spent on each party at election time, comparing the situation favourably to the vast sums spent on elections in the United States.

For the Prince Albert MP, the latest protest in front of his office merely continued a longstanding trend.

“If you look at that crowd and what they’re doing, they’re the anti-everything crowd,” Hoback said. “They’re against the oil sands developments, they’re against pipelines, they’re against any type of modernization or improvement in the economy.

“They just protest to protest,” he added. “That’s who they are … They’re (a) wing of the NDP that promotes NDP issues, so they’re not necessarily there to make sure that they get a clear message across. They’re there to basically confuse people and to distort the messaging.”

At the same time, he indicated that the government would be willing to listen to any proposed amendments that might improve the bill.

Like their counterparts at Conservative MP offices across the country, P.A. activists on Tuesday presented a petition seeking the removal of the sections of the Act that would suppress voting by young, aboriginal and low-income voters.

It would also continue allowing Elections Canada to promote programs such as StudentVote, remove the exemptions of fundraising activities from campaign spending limits and give election fraud investigators the power to compel testimony from political operatives.

Thus far, activists have gathered more than 82,000 signatures from Canadians for their petition. Lennox-Zepp expressed optimism that the Conservatives might listen and make amendments to the proposed Act.

“I’m hopeful that they will just because of the large number,” she said. “Over 82,000 Canadians have said that we want amendments to this act.

“I think that that’s a large number and I think that they will consider making amendments.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, Conservative MP, Terra Lennox-Zepp and Council of Canadians member Rick Sawa Daily Herald

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  • Annbuffy
    March 26, 2014 - 11:40

    I really don't know how people in Prince Albert put up with Hoback, he sounds so disrespectful. I guess that I have to think, since he thinks activists just protest for protest's sake, that he is an immensely narrowminded individual who has no sense of what others may be thinking, or what matters. That being said, I imagine he's in politics just for the money.

  • sam sahm
    March 26, 2014 - 10:31

    So, in a nutshell, Hoback is lumping students, the homeless, and aboriginals as fraudsters..no surprise there from the conservatives....welcome back to the roman empire...Praetor Hoback and his Imperator are out to crush the "anti-everything" slaves once and for all..Oh Spartacus, Oh Spartacus where are you?