Talking About Vouching and Voter Rights

May 19, 2015

Want to learn about recent changes to voter rights and vouching, but don’t know where to begin? Here’s a helpful summary to get you started.

Because the Learn section of TalkRights features content produced by CCLA volunteers and interviews with experts in their own words, opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the CCLA’s own policies or positions. For official publications, key reports, position papers, legal documentation, and up-to-date news about the CCLA’s work check out the In Focus section of our website.

Context

On February 4th, 2014, Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, tabled Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act in the House of Commons (The House). The next day, he stated in the House that this bill “would make our laws tough, predictable, and easy to follow. Life would be harder for election lawbreakers and easier for honest citizens taking part in democracy.”

The bill was sent to the Senate with amendments on May 12, 2014 and received Royal Assent on June 19, 2014.

Multiple organizations, including the opposition parties, public-interest groups, Aboriginal associations and others, have severely criticized this bill, claiming it was an attack on Canadians’ civil liberties and the protected democratic right of voting.

Vouching

The purpose of voter identification during an election is to ensure that any individual seeking to cast his or her ballot is eligible and qualified to do so under that jurisdiction’s electoral laws. We should keep in mind that it is only since 2007 that the law imposes on electors the obligation to provide evidence of their identity as well as of their address before they are allowed to vote. Currently, they can do this in one of three ways:

They can present a government-issued piece of ID that includes their photo, name and current address. (In practice, this option is primarily limited to a driver’s licence. Approximately 86% of adults in Canada have a licence. This means that approximately 4 million do not have one, including 28% of individuals over 65.)

Electors who don’t have a driver’s licence can present two authorized pieces of ID, one of which must show their current residential address. (While there are almost 40 authorized pieces of identification, only 13 may include a current address.)

An elector without ID may, subject to certain requirements, be vouched for by another elector who has proper identification.

For many electors, mainly young electors, seniors and First Nations electors on reserves, the third method is the only option. In the last election, approximately 120,000 Canadians did not have proper identification and had to ask someone to vouch for them. But what is vouching? The elector who does not have proper identification must be accompanied by an elector whose name appears on the list of electors for the same polling division, who has proper identification pieces, and who confirms the identity of that person.

C-23, 1st version

The first version of Bill C-23 modified how you can prove identity and residence. Bill C-23 aimed to eliminate two methods Canadians usually used to prove residence: vouching and voting ID cards (VICs). VICs are cards that electors received in the mail that confirmed their name and address. In other words, establishing identity and residence are now more onerous for Canadians wanting to vote in the next elections.

Under the first version of the bill, vouching was completely eliminated as a method to prove identity or residence. The Canadians who depended on vouching to vote would have been disenfranchised had Bill C-23 been passed without amendments.

During the parliamentary hearings on the bill, many groups came forward to argue that, if the government decided to remove vouching as a method of identification, many would not be able to prove their identity or residence for lack of acceptable documentation.

Democracy Watch echoed the previous statement and said the government is ”citing estimates from one study that don’t prove vouching fraud occurred (only “irregularities”), and are ignoring the fact that large scale fraud using vouching would be very difficult (given that under subsection 143(3) and (5) of the Canada Elections Act (CEA) each voter is only allowed to vouch for one other voter and only in their riding). 

C-23, 2nd version – Written Oath in lieu of vouching

Under relentless pressure, the Conservative government put forward forty-five proposed amendments to the bill, including a new measure on vouching.

The government confirmed that if an elector’s identification does not have an address on it, they would have to first sign an oath of residence. Another voter, with valid ID will co-sign attesting to that voter’s address. Elections Canada will verify the information to ensure that no individual votes twice.

The written oath must include statements affirming that:

the elector taking the oath has received the prescribed oral advice from the election official administering the oath;

the elector knows the elector without valid ID personally;

the elector knows that the elector without valid ID resides in the polling division;

the elector has not in the same election attested to the residence of another elector without valid ID; and

the elector’s own residence has not been attested to by another elector at the election.

Many are nonetheless stating that the new measures do not go far enough in protecting the civil rights of Canadian voters, including Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former electoral officer, who argued that “Bill C-23 will result in some people having more difficulty voting. Some people will not go to the polls because they are confused, so it’s a form of self-disenfranchisement.”

Moreover, two national organizations, the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students, filed claims challenging the changes made by the government’s Fair Elections Act and alleging that it will make it harder for tens of thousands of people to vote.

How does this affect you?

Students

The new vouching requirements outlined above could affect students disproportionately. Students who live off-campus move frequently, even up to twice per year, and will not have a photo ID with their current address.

Students who live in residences on campus will also have difficulty in establishing valid ID since they will rarely receive mail, which could be used as valid ID. They could ask their university or college to provide them with an “attestation of residence”, a valid ID, but this is often an option that students don’t know about. It’s also a complex, time-consuming process that will discourage students.

The new vouching procedure only permits an elector with valid ID to vouch for only one other elector without valid ID. This may present problems for students who live on campus. In residence settings, there are often not enough students with valid ID to vouch for those who do not have valid ID.

Finally, students who live off campus are often living in apartments where only one roommate’s name is on the lease, bills, and other documents.

Indigenous individuals

For many indigenous individuals, the only government-issued ID they have as their status card; yet this card does not have their address on it.

The band may issue letters of attestation to confirm the residency of the band members. Yet some communities have thousands of members, and drafting letters for all or the majority of those members could be an onerous task for the band administration.

Also, on many occasions, many family and extended family members will live under one roof, with one individual’s name on most of the official documents, like utility bills. This individual will be able to register, but will only be able to vouch for one more person.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples stated “Aboriginal Peoples who live on reserves and who may be challenged by elections officials to verify as to where they live, because their home may not have a typical residential address, are particularly affected.” Peter Dinsdale, CEO of the Assembly of First Nations, echoed the sentiment by stating that eliminating the use of VICs and vouching could disenfranchise First Nations voters.

Seniors living in Long-Term Retirement Facilities

Throughout the debate we have seen many examples of retired individuals living in long-term facilities who could be disenfranchised because of a lack of valid ID. Generally, these individuals often will not have bills, sufficient government-issued ID or other documents to prove identity and residency. For example, health cards do not have the address, women will lack a driver’s license, and bills and other financial documents will be addressed to someone else, like the facility’s administrator or their children.

Again, if a resident of the facility does not have valid identification, they will have to rely on another resident who does have valid ID or a letter of attestation from the facility. As we have seen with the students’ or indigenous individuals’ situations, these measures often lead to problems, such as lack of enough residents with valid ID to vouch for everyone else, or the facility itself lacking resources to draft the letters to all who need one.

Further Reading

Fair Elections Act, S.C. 2014, c. 12

Legislative Summary of Bill C-23: An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts

The Globe and Mail – Everything you need to know about the Fair Elections Act

Maclean’s – A rough guide to the Fair Elections Act

Compliance Review: Final Report and Recommendations (Neufeld Report)