The Conservative government's Fair Elections Act threatens Canada's global reputation as a "guardian of democracy and human rights," a group of international researchers says.
The open letter, provided to The Globe and Mail, comes from 19 professors from universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Ireland. The letter lays out objections to the government bill to overhaul Canada's electoral laws.
"We believe that this Act would prove [to] be deeply damaging for electoral integrity within Canada, as well as providing an example which, if emulated elsewhere, may potentially harm international standards of electoral rights," the scholars write in the letter.
In particular, the changes would "undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process, diminish the effectiveness of Elections Canada, reduce voting rights, expand the role of money in politics and foster partisan bias in election administration," they write.
The letter follows objections by Canadian academics to a bill the Conservatives had been swiftly pushing through the House of Commons before it was slowed by opposition filibustering and other tactics.
Among the signatories is Pippa Norris, a Harvard University lecturer who is leading a six-year electoral integrity project, comparing democratic systems worldwide. Ms. Norris said the bill would weaken Elections Canada – which she typically cites as a premier agency internationally – and is "chasing at straw persons" with some of its changes.
"I would very much hope they take a breath and would take account of expert opinion, would take account of civil society, would take account of everybody and have basically a royal commission, is what you need, [that] could take this out of the partisan arena," she said.
By eliminating identity vouching at the voting booth, the bill mirrors efforts in the United States that would, in effect, add barriers to the voting process, she said.
"If the U.S. and Canada both start restricting voters' capacities to express their role, then I think other countries which are far less democratic will easily take their message," Prof. Norris said. "… It's a great excuse. They'll say, if the leading countries in the world aren't doing this, why should we?"
The scholars identify a few key categories of objections to the bill in their letter.
They warn it "significantly diminishes the effectiveness of Elections Canada" by limiting the Chief Electoral Officer's power to speak publicly, shifting the enforcement arm of the agency to another department and placing limits on what the investigator, the Commissioner of Canada Elections, can say publicly. They also criticize the bill because it would not give Elections Canada the power to compel testimony, which it has sought.
In a second objection, the scholars aim at the elimination of vouching, and the voter information card as a form of corroborating ID, saying it "diminishes the ability of citizens to vote." Prof. Norris dismissed the Conservatives' contention that both are too open to fraud.
"Basically, electoral fraud is an urban myth. It's not a real thing, by and large. There are some problems, but it's not a widespread problem," she said.
Third, the scholars warn the bill would expand "the role of money" in elections by allowing parties to exempt fundraising activities from campaign spending, raising certain donation limits, not requiring parties to document their expenses and "increasing the influence of personal wealth" by allowing people to donate more to their own campaigns.
Finally, they say the Fair Elections Act would add "partisan bias" to the electoral process by allowing parties to recommend poll supervisors, among other changes.
Parliament is on a break, and debate on the bill is expected to resume in committee on March 25.