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Stephen Maher: Court challenge hopes to right the wrongs of the Fair Elections Act
July 2, 2015
Stephen Maher

Last year, when the Conservatives were pushing the Fair Elections Act through Parliament, Conservative MP Brad Butt stood up — twice — to claim he had seen voter information cards being stolen.

“I am from a semi-urban area of Mississauga, where there are many high-rise apartment buildings,” he said.

“On mail delivery day, when the voter cards are delivered to community mailboxes in apartment buildings, many of them are discarded in the garbage can or the blue box. I have actually witnessed other people picking up the voter cards, going to the campaign office of whatever candidate they support and handing out these voter cards to other individuals, who then walk into voting stations with friends who vouch for them with no ID.”

Stephen Best, who lives in Butts’ riding, thought the story was weird. If Butt saw people stealing voter cards, why didn’t he report it?

He contacted Elections Canada, and the agency checked Butt’s bogus claims. Two weeks later, the Tory MP stood up in the Commons to say he had made up his story.

“I made a statement in the House during the debate that is not accurate, and I just want to reflect the fact that I have not personally witnessed individuals retrieving voter notification cards from the garbage cans or from the mailbox areas of apartment buildings,” he said.

Many people are going to be prevented from voting in October to prevent the kind of thing that Butt didn’t see.

The Fair Elections Act prevents voters from using voter cards as identification. People with up-to-date driver’s licences are fine, but nearly four million Canadians don’t have those. To vote, they will have to show ID that proves who they are and where they live.

Since a lot of them won’t know that, this election could be a mess, especially if party workers make full use of their right to examine voters’ ID, another new measure in the Fair Elections Act.

The ID requirements will be toughest for people who have recently moved, seniors in nursing homes, aboriginals and students, many of whom will have recently moved.

It sure looks like the Conservatives would be just as happy if many students and aboriginals don’t get their paperwork organized, because they tend to vote for other parties.

This all appears to have been inspired by American laws that make it harder for poor people to vote, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud.

On Thursday, lawyer Steven Shrybman will ask a Toronto judge to issue an emergency injunction to allow the use of voter cards as identification this October. If he succeeds, Elections Canada would still have time to reprint the cards.

Shrybman, representing the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students, will argue the Fair Elections Act violates the Charter right to vote, because tens of thousands of voters will be unable to prove their identity and address on election day.

His case depends on evidence from election expert Harry Neufeld, who says that after many years of looking for voter fraud, he has failed to find it. In the rare cases where people do vote twice they do so because of mental disability or intoxication.

Justice Department lawyers argue it’s up to MPs, not judges, to decide what ID is required. And anyone without ID can just acquire a letter of confirmation of residence.

They say safeguards are needed to protect the integrity of the electoral system, but in their 51-page affidavit they are able to point to only two fraudulent votes, both cast by pranksters from Quebec TV show Infoman, who spoiled their ballots in 2011.

Luckily for the Conservatives, the judge may rule based on the threshold necessary to overturn a potentially unconstitutional law before there is time for a full airing of evidence rather than the merits of the law.