Stephen Maher: It could get ugly at polling stations this fall thanks to Fair Elections Act

Pierre Poilievre. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang/FilesPierre Poilievre.

When Elections Canada mails out Voter Information Cards this fall, a new sentence in bold letters will appear at the bottom: Please note that this card is not a piece of ID.

This means that on election day, tens of thousands of people will likely turn up at their polling station, voter cards in hand, only to learn that they can’t vote.

In the last election, 400,000 Canadians used these cards to identify themselves. Another 120,171 had someone, usually a neighbour or relative, vouch for their identity.

This time there will be none of that, thanks to the Fair Elections Act passed by the Conservative government last year.

If you see lines of angry, confused people at your polling station on Oct. 19, you can thank Pierre Poilievre, minister of democratic reform.

Experts warned that Poilievre’s plans would make it harder to vote. Citizens rallied and opposition MPs filibustered, but Poilievre, a talking point in a tailored suit, would hear none of it. He insisted the changes were necessary because of the the threat of voter fraud.

To make his case, he repeatedly cited a report by Harry Neufeld, the expert Elections Canada hired to figure out what went wrong in the Toronto-area riding of Etobicoke Centre in 2011, when Conservative Ted Opitz beat Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj by just 26 votes.

Wrzesnewskyj, who is determined and rich, challenged the result, presenting evidence that at least 79 dodgy ballots were counted. He won at Ontario Superior Court, but the Supreme Court ruled against him, since there was no evidence of fraud.

Elections Canada asked Neufeld to look for similar problems across Canada. He found “serious administrative errors,” mostly forms filled out incorrectly by hastily trained workers handling election-day registrations for people with ID issues.

Neufeld recommended that Elections Canada simplify the paperwork and use the Voter Information Cards more widely.

Fred Chartrand/CP Fred Chartrand/CPHarry Neufeld: “My observation is that voting fraud ... is extremely rare in this country.”

Instead of taking that advice, Poilievre banned the use of the Voter Information Card as ID and made vouching harder.

Neufeld is not impressed.

The veteran elections expert has filed an affidavit in a case to be heard in Ontario Superior Court in Toronto on July 2, when the Council of Canadians will ask a judge for an injunction to allow the fall election to proceed using voter cards and vouching under the old rules.

Neufeld makes a compelling case.

“It can be anticipated that many tens of thousands of otherwise fully qualified voters will simply be unable to meet the new attestation-of-residence requirements,” he writes.

The new rules will be most difficult for those who often don’t have ID with their addresses: “students, First Nations living on reserves and seniors living in long-term care facilities.”

And Neufeld contradicts what he obviously expects to be the government’s counter argument: that the changes are necessary to prevent fraud.

“During my 33 years of election administration … my observation is that voting fraud which involves persons deciding to impersonate someone else, or find some other creative way to vote more than once, is extremely rare in this country,” he writes.


Neufeld writes that he’s taken part in “lengthy, intensive and highly sophisticated” investigations into fraud allegations, and failed to find it.

Where investigators find people who have voted twice, they find addled people.

“Almost all multiple voters are found to be suffering from some form of mental dementia, usually as a result of advanced age or substance abuse,” he writes.

Because of this phantom menace, it’s easy to imagine a disastrous election, with long lines full of frustrated voters, especially in seniors homes, universities and on First Nations.

If party operatives in tight races want to game the system, they can challenge IDs in polls where their opponents are strong. If stressed-out officials are already dealing with ID issues, the lines could get long enough that voters give up waiting.

It could be ugly.

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