Revisiting Thursday night’s Agenda, on the Fair Elections Act

I felt compelled to share with everyone what I thought was an important discussion of the Fair Elections Act: the Thursday night broadcast of The Agenda on TVO. Unfortunately, a major component of the broadcast was a one-on-one with Pierre Poilievre, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform. Ordinarily I would say that including the minister or member primarily responsible for a piece of legislation in a discussion of said legislation is at least desirable if not essential. Unfortunately, in this case the minister has shown himself again and again1 to be, um, a pants-on friar, and I can’t ethically re-post anything he says without extensive rebuttal. He’s like the Iraqi Information Minister during the 2003 invasion, but not as likeable.

As of yesterday (Friday), there’s good news for everyone and bad news for me. The good news for everyone is that Poilievre is open to changing some parts of the bill – though problematic items remain. The bad news for me is that there was an overnight window during which this post would have been oh, so timely, and I totally missed it.

In the commentary that follows, I’ll be referring to a Globe and Mail piece called “Everything you need to know about the Fair Elections Act”. I won’t comment on everything – just the parts that would make my younger self throw things at the screen.

First to appear on the broadcast is the aforementioned Minister of Information Democratic Reform:

Purpose of the Bill

Poilievre at 0m38s: “The goal of the bill is to keep democracy in the hands of everyday Canadians by putting special interests on the sidelines and rulebreakers out of business. It’s a common-sense bill that closes loopholes to big money, cracks down on rogue callers who carry out political impersonations over the telephone, and makes it more difficult to vote fraudulently.”

As far as putting rulebreakers out of business goes, I can’t wait to see what happens with Guelph.

You’re in fact effectively creating a new loophole for big money – it now won’t count against your campaign spending limit to call or write people who’ve supported you in the past, as long as you ask for a donation. (The Senate committee are calling for this part of the bill to be abandoned. And now Poilievre himself is saying this individual proposal isn’t “particularly important”.)

And the donation limits are going up. From the guide in the Globe: “in most cases, from $1,200 this year to $1,500 if passed, and $25 per year after. Two changes, however, will open the door to wealthier candidates, who would be able to donate $5,000 to [their own] campaign or up to $25,000 to [their own] party leadership campaign, specifically. Presently, the limits for those donations are just $1,000, but that’s on top of the $1,200 limit, meaning candidates can give their [own] campaigns $2,200. Under the new rules, the limits are higher but the proposed new $1,500 general donation limit can no longer be tacked on to it.”


Paikin at 6m3s: “If memory serves, I think your party was the one that was most notorious for breaking these [electoral-official-impersonation, voter-misdirection] rules, and I wonder whether you’ve heard from anybody at head office in your party who’s said ‘What are you clamping down on this for? This helped us last time.'”

Poilievre: “Can you give me an example of where our party has done that?”

Robocalls, at least in Guelph. Live callers, too, elsewhere. It’s a smoking gun, anyway. It’s like how you have to publicly say that O.J. “allegedly” committed a double murder. This is an especially appropriate parallel because civil courts found both fraud in the election and “wrongful death” in the, um, O.J.-associated killings.

Poilievre: “If someone did that, they would have done so not acting with the support of the Conservative Party – we would never condone that, and if ever we heard of it happening, we would immediately report it to authorities.”

Well, as Bob Penner said in an affidavit: “The only plausible explanation for such calling to have occurred is for someone at the senior level in a central political campaign to have authorized the strategy and provided the data and the funds with which to carry it out.”

We don’t need to be wearing a tinfoil hat to reasonably suspect this goes beyond one volunteer in Guelph. Unless the pollsters and others are part of a conspiracy-mongering conspiracy. This may come as a shock to some CPC spokespeople, but it’s possible to not like the election results and objectively find foul play.


Poilievre at 8m11s: “We think that every single voter should present ID when they cast their ballot. You have to present ID to do pretty much anything these days – if you want to drive a car, buy a beer, or exercise your constitutionally-protected right to cross the border, you have to present ID. And we think that it’s reasonable to expect that when a voter arrives at a voting location that they present ID proving who they are before they vote.”

“Bring ID” sounds like a reasonable thing to ask, but there’s a catch: It’s not that hard to prove who you are – this is also about where you live. You need something to prove not just your identity, but your current address as well. (As you might imagine, compared to voting, when you buy a beer or even drive a car, what your current address exactly is might not be much of an issue.) Vouching can be used as a safeguard so that you won’t be disenfranchised by being mobile or itinerant.

And the passport you’d use to cross the border doesn’t count as proof of address, since you just fill in your address yourself on them. But at least with vouching in place you could go with your best friend who does have her passport and her hydro bill, and you’d get to vote. A record from your school will do, but it has to be all official and stuff – not just one you printed out yourself.

Lastly2, the ID requirement at crossing the border to leave Canada isn’t imposed by Canada – it’s by the United States. (Presumably if you were stuck on the other side without your documentation and you needed to get back into Canada you’d eventually be helped, but it could take a while.) You, as a Canadian, have an inalienable constitutional right to leave Canada and to return to Canada. But whether or not you can get into the country you’re leaving Canada for is at the whim of that country.

Paikin at 9m30s: “How do you know [Canadians agree with you]?”

Poilievre: “There’s publicly available polling data now that shows that the vast majority, three-quarters of Canadians believe that you should bring ID when you vote, and I’ve been out in my constituency the last two weeks talking with the people I work for and they have been consistently telling me they think it’s reasonable to bring ID when you vote.”

I think I’ll call this tactic “false essentifying”. Again, the problem isn’t so much ID-or-not, it’s having a fail-safe for when addresses can’t be proven. It’s like if I wanted to make changes to due process in the justice system and to support this I pointed to polling data on the question of whether people who commit crimes should go to jail.

So here’s a poll for you, Pierre: “Support for the Conservative government’s electoral reform is highest among those who don’t know much about it”

Role of Elections Canada

Paikin at 12m15s: “Telling Elections Canada they can’t promote the right to have people vote, I think for some, sounds a bit odd. Why do you think that should be the way it is?”

Poilievre: “Well, there are two things, Steve, that trigger people to vote. One is motivation, the other is information.”

At this moment you may wonder if he’s distinguishing between people who are motivated by their needs and vote accordingly and people who are somewhat informed and vote accordingly. But no.

Poilievre: “Motivation: That’s what political parties and candidates offer. You take a position on policy issues and people are motivated to go out and support or oppose you at the ballot box. Information is the how-to. How do I vote in advance? How do I vote by mail? If I’m going to be out of town on Election Day, is it possible for me to go to the returning office and cast my ballot beforehand? What if I’m disabled – how do I get in – will there be a ramp for my wheelchair? This is the basic information, and Elections Canada’s own data shows that they have done a very poor job of informing people of this basic information, so the Fair Elections Act requires that the agency focus on information while leaving motivation to the campaigns and parties whose job it is.”

I suppose the money pool is limited but philosophically-speaking, their ability to promote voting certainly doesn’t stand in opposition to their ability to communicate the hows and wheres. In fact, those things are a natural compliment. It’s hardly a conflict of interest, as Senator Linda Frum asserts, but a conflation. Not cross-purpose but parallel-purpose.

Now, I suppose that high-turnout might merely be cooked up, if it is tangibly incentivized for the people running the election. If you’re that worried about it, split the information and engagement work from the implementation and investigation work. I can say, though, and maybe I was merely blissfully ignorant, but I never lost a nanosecond of sleep worrying that Elections Canada would try to game voter turnout to make themselves look good. It’s great that the CPC is here to look out for these things for us.

The political parties will, quite naturally, move Heaven and Earth to get their potential supporters to vote. But I’m not going to trust them with promoting voting in general – not even collectively. Not everyone is a natural Reform-Alliancer, Grit, or Dipper. Lots of people are “None of the above.” Perhaps some would question the “necessary” in a statement like “Political parties are a necessary evil.”

We shouldn’t trust the parties to promote why voting matters. It’s too tempting for them to make it about why voting for them matters. Oh, I know that many will say something like, “Go vote, even if it’s not for us,” but I don’t think we should be expecting them to step in and provide a sorely-needed civics crash course at election time.

Poilievre at 14m15s: “What [people] expect from their election agency is the basic information, the how-to, and that’s where the elections agency has fallen short. Let me just give you two stats: Among young people, 50% were unaware that they could vote early in the last election. Among aboriginal youth, it was three-quarters who were unaware of that fact. So if you’re a young person, you don’t know that you can vote early, and then on Election Day you happen to have an exam or a work obligation, then you’ve lost your chance. The agency really needs to do a better job of giving people that basic information and the Fair Elections act will require it do so.”

Imagine a world where young people cared about voting. I think they would find a way to know about the wheres and hows. If you’re a store selling something people aren’t all that interested in, don’t expect them to have your hours memorized. Though this is a store that’s only open every few years, so the analogy breaks a bit.

What I’m trying to say here is that making people care about voting will make them care about the wheres and the hows and would presumably be more effective than simply providing the wheres and the hows. And one does not need to be at the expense of the other, unless they really gum up their website or something.

Next, Craig Scott, the NDP’s Democratic Reform Critic, appears:

Perhaps I’m biased, but I can get through this part without biffing things.

Finally, we have the panel. MP for Durham, Erin O’Toole (CPC); University of Toronto law professor Yasmin Dawood; National Post columnist Andrew Coyne:

O’Toole at 14m46s: “I think we’ve heard from a lot of voices at the committee, including [Sheila Fraser’s], Steve, but I do find it interesting – and I’ll have to say this – that Elections Canada just last year appointed a panel of eminent people to consult with regularly, and Mr. Manning was one, and Ms. Fraser – eminent, respected people – and they didn’t need that advisory committee years ago, but they knew there was going to be substantial reform coming, and I think it shows a sort of reluctance to update our approach to administering elections. I would rather it stay on the merits of each principle because even, as Andrew said, having partisan appointments – [deputy returning officers] have been appointed on recommendation of the parties for years. In fact, the Neufeld report showed that the current system that allows the parties to recommend certain poll clerks only leads to 29% of the hundreds of thousands of people they need.”

It might just show that they knew there was a storm coming, never mind reform. It’s a shame that Elections Canada itself felt it had to spring into action to stand a chance of defending our independent electoral system, but thank the FSM they did. Try coming with reform proposals that aren’t so draconian – you might see less reluctance.

Clearly, since the parties aren’t providing enough people, we need to have to parties provide more people! Right?

From the guide in the Globe: “Under the bill, the party that won the most votes in a previous election will also be able to recommend people to act as central poll supervisor, a person in charge of a particular polling location. The Chief Electoral Officer says doing so will compromise the non-partisan nature of that role. The NWT Chief Electoral Officer also focused on this provision, saying all election officers – including central poll supervisors – be appointed by Elections Canada “without any influence by a registered political party.””

It’s absurd that giving an incumbent party such blatantly preferential treatment could be a solution to anything. It’s possible that such supervisors will behave impartially, but we ought not to be satisfied with leaving the impartiality to the whim of the parties or candidates, in principle, in practise, or even in perception.

Well, that’s enough damage for now. I don’t wish to do any more commentaries on a Poilievre media appearance for a very long time. It’s bad enough that I know how to spell his name.

  1. In that piece, Nerenberg notes that Poilievre has been doing one-on-one interviews rather than panel appearances. It might be telling that he does not appear in the panel discussion on this show, but availability might be a reason. I haven’t looked into it. 

  2. Okay, one more thing – the mere fact that a practice is happening everywhere else doesn’t make it right to bring it into a last holdout. First, there are frequently circumstances which merit exceptions – which ones are arguable, yes, but rules themselves don’t automatically merit freedom from exception. Second, the practice itself can be questionable even if people let it get into more and more areas of life. Drug testing is a good example of this. We love consistency, but it’s not necessarily a virtue. 

Leave a Reply