The government's proposed Fair Elections Act includes some worthwhile changes, but also others that would disenfranchise some voters, weaken the public trust in Elections Canada and hinder robocall investigations, Canada's former chief electoral officer says.
Jean-Pierre Kingsley testified Tuesday in front of a committee considering Bill C-23, the government's Elections Act overhaul that has been under fire from many researchers and critics.
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation)
Mr. Kingsley had previously given the bill a grade of A-, an assessment cited frequently by the government; on Tuesday, he backed away from that and refused to assign it a grade, saying only he is hoping for changes that would make it an A+.
While saying parts of the bill are positive or neutral, "several changes are essential," Mr. Kingsley told the committee.
Those include abandoning a push to eliminate vouching, which allows someone to cast a ballot if another elector swears to the voter's identity. "Please, please don't get rid of it," Mr. Kingsley said, adding the changes will "directly affect the constitutional right to vote of a significant number of Canadians, without justification."
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre has said vouching is too vulnerable to abuse and fraud. Mr. Kingsley said vouching irregularities are mostly "administrative in nature... rather than being indicative of fraudulent voting."
He also pushed back against the bill's proposed limits on what the Chief Electoral Officer, currently Marc Mayrand, can say publicly. It would mean Elections Canada could no longer run campaigns aimed at boosting voter turnout.
"The Chief Electoral Officer must retain the authority to reach out to all Canadians," Mr. Kingsley said Tuesday. If the changes are not abandoned, "Canadians will lose their trust and their confidence in our elections. That's not acceptable."
Mr. Kingsley also opposed the government's proposal to exempt certain fundraising calls – those to people who've donated $20 or more to a party within five years – from election spending limits. Such a change "is not justified," Mr. Kingsley said, and would open the door to calls that ultimately urge people to back a candidate.
"It is simply not possible to seek funds without including reasons for giving, and this can only constitute advertising for or against a party or a candidate. Moreover, it favours richer and established parties to the detriment of small and especially newer ones," he said.
Mr. Kingsley said other campaign finance changes – small hikes to donation limits and larger ones to donations a person can make to their own campaign – will be positive changes "without seriously impacting the overall role of money in the process." In particular, the bill includes "very reasonable" changes to clear up rules around loans to political campaigns, particularly unpaid party leadership loans, he said.
He welcomed some changes to boost penalties for erroneous robocalls but said the bill doesn't go far enough – it only calls for recordings of calls to be kept for a year, and doesn't require records to be kept of what phone numbers were contacted. Mr. Kingsley recommended keeping 10 years worth of records and also including the numbers called. "There's not much point in keeping it for one year" because investigations take longer than that, he said.
The chief electoral officers of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories spoke to the committee Tuesday after Mr. Kingsley. B.C.'s Keith Archer said the elimination of vouching could disenfranchise voters, saying 14,000 people vouched provincially in an election last year. "I expect many of them would be disenfranchised" without vouching, he said.
NWT Chief Electoral Officer David Brock said removing of vouching would harm those who don't have, and can't easily access, government ID, including many in the North and First Nations voters. He also pushed back against proposed changes that would infringe on the neutrality of elections officials – those include a proposed change to allow candidates, or their representatives, to examine people's ID, and allowing parties to recommend the appointment of certain poll officials. Mr. Brock said neither change should go through. He also echoed Mr. Kingsley in saying the bill shouldn't restrict what the federal Chief Electoral Officer can say, nor should it require Treasury Board approval for Elections Canada to hire outside experts to help with investigations, he said.