An attempt from the government to change how Canadians abroad will cast ballots come election time is facing growing opposition from House of Commons committee witnesses, ahead of an appearance at committee from the minister in charge of the legislation.
Bill C-50, the Citizenship Voting Act, was cited by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre after being tabled in the House of Commons last December as an effort to prevent non-Canadians from voting and to curb what he said was the serious risk of voter fraud.
But witnesses on Tuesday at the procedure and House affairs committee currently studying the bill said there’s no evidence to back up claims that voter fraud, particularly abroad, is a something lawmakers need to worry about.
“The legislation offers a solution in search of a problem, given that there really is no systematic, imperative evidence that voter fraud is really a problem,” said Dennis Pilon, a professor at York University.
Bill C-50 was tabled in the House just after the Ontario Superior Court struck down a rule barring anyone living overseas for more than five years from voting. Michael Pal, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the bill violates the spirit of that court ruling.
Along with the claim that voter fraud isn’t a problem, witnesses at committee Tuesday suggested C-50 will add onerous requirements to expats and make it, for some, literally impossible to vote.
The bill would eliminate the International Register of Electors, a list Canadians living abroad can apply to be on that allows them to vote by special mail-in ballot for an election at any time. Instead, C-50 will require Canadian citizens living abroad to register to vote for each election, each time they want to cast a ballot.
It would change ID requirements for Canadians overseas, making it a rule for them to have to provide documents issued only by Canadian formed entities — banks, phone companies and insurance companies, for example, which Elections Canada Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand said at a previous committee meeting would be difficult for election officials to determine.
Ian Lee, from the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, said the concerns over identification rules in the bill are overblown. Pal and other witnesses disagreed.
“My fear with C-50 is that the House may inadvertently be doing indirectly what the courts said it cannot do directly,” said Pal.
”The House of Commons cannot deprive people, cannot ban them from voting. But if the rules are so onerous as to make it nearly impossible to cast a ballot, then the effect is the same,” he added.
Joanna Woo, a postdoctoral researcher living in Zurich, spoke via video and said the process she went through just to register to vote in Canada under the old rules took longer than an election cycle. The new rules under C-50 will make voting impossible for her, she said.
“I don’t believe the system was broken,” Pal added. “Could it have been tweaked in small ways? Absolutely. We should always try to improve the democratic process with the idea of making it as accessible as possible.”
Canadians should be able to register whenever they can and whenever they want, he suggested.
“People lead busy lives. We have a crisis in democracy, I think, in this country,” Pal continued. “Not enough people are voting or engaged. Why not try to facilitate people’s engagement rather than making it more difficult?”