‘Fair Elections Act’ changes to voter ID policies could disenfranchise up to 120,000 voters

The unveiling of the sort-of-Orwellian-named Fair Elections Act by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre this morning is attracting attention among journalists and commentators for its apparent lack of consultation with Elections Canada and pieces like changes to campaign spending limits that were selectively left out of the press conference by the Minister, but equally concerning is a seemingly small change to voter ID laws at the ballot box.

The Fair Elections Act, as announced today, proposes to eliminate a policy in place that allowed an individual to vote without the possessing one of the official pieces of ID by having another individual, whom they know, ‘vouch’ for their identity and residence. The current policy that allows ‘vouching’ makes Canada in the same class as the most permissive nations in terms of election rules.  (note: this is a good thing in a democracy with steadily falling voter turnout).

It may seem reasonable to assume that all Canadians possess a piece of valid ID for the purposes of voting, but we know this is not the case (pdf).  Low-income voters are much less likely to have a driver’s licence or other valid piece of ID.   Students may have a driver’s licence but lack the documentation of their residence since  they are much more likely to move frequently.  For example, a survey at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia found that 30% of students who attempted to vote were denied.

There is extensive literature to back up arguments that strict voter ID laws affect voter turnout among certain groups of electors.  Prof. Hershey, writing in a U.S. context–which we know has some pretty dreadful voter ID laws that are marketed as fraud prevention, but critics agree are clever Republican attempts to suppress minority voters–tells us (pdf):

“The immense literature on the costs of voting has shown that costs ranging from the registration requirement to strict voter-ID laws do reduce voter turnout to some degree and that the impact seems to fall disproportionately on the least educated and the least wealthy.” (90)

So that leads to the question: is voter fraud by vouching a big problem in Canada?

Minister Poilievre cites a study commissioned by Elections Canada (pdf), written by Harry Neufeld, which claims that the “irregularities” for vouching voting was around 25%.  Yet when one looks at the report, Neufeld is using the term “irregularities” in reference to electoral workers ‘irregularly’ applying policy, not confirmed cases of voter fraud by vouching.

Minister Poilievre is thus knowingly invoking a term that sounds a lot worse to a causal reader than the author of the report is intending in that context.  To be clear: Neufeld is saying that in 25% of cases of ‘vouching’ voting, electoral workers ‘irregularly’ applied the policy (to require a registered voter in the riding to vouch for the voter without ID), NOT that 25% of vouching voters were found to be fraudulent! This is obviously an important distinction.

Elections Canada confirms (pdf) that about 120, 000 voters used vouching procedures in the last election.   This policy change would thus affect a sizeable number of voters, and studies demonstrate that these voters are disproportionately young, poor and less educated–precisely the groups of Canadians with lowest voter turnout rates already.   Of course systems to prevent fraud in the electoral system are essential to legitimate elections, but one worries about political motivations when a rule change so disproportionately affects a particular segment of electors.

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3 thoughts on “‘Fair Elections Act’ changes to voter ID policies could disenfranchise up to 120,000 voters”

  1. It’s obvious to anyone who is paying attention that the CONservatives are getting their ideas (and perhaps marching orders) from their Tea Party benefactors.

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