Learning From a Neighbor (or Neighbour)…U.S. Voter Suppression, Canada Style

Dear Virtual Editor,

imageI have been meaning to write more often, but I am working hard to finish a book about Canada in other people’s wars.  Two developments have prompted me to make time for a post.  The first is the gratifying number of new people who have signed up for the blog. Thank you, but I encourage you to send comments.  As long as they do not impugn motherhood or the NC Tarheels, they are likely to be published.

HarperThe second development is the arrival of a chance to share some cross border commonality.   I have been a bit worried about a comparative lack of Canadian content.

As Canadian readers know, on the strength of McGovern-level voter support, the Conservative Party installed in Ottawa a “majority” government in 2011. (American readers may find explanation of how this is possible by reading the 27 Sept. 2013 post in the Archives.)  The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has been merrily destroying the environment, muzzling dissent, crippling the judicial system, repealing civil liberties, and generally undermining every distinctly Canadian characteristic of any worth.  It must be said, however, that he does so with a smile. As we say in NC, he grins like a possum eatin’ peach seeds.

There is an election coming in 2015. Two of three Canadians do not want the current government. The task is how to get rid of the Conservatives (Aka Tories) within our broken parliamentary system.  The Tories must think that it is possible because they have obviously looked south for expertise and assistance in voter suppression.

ROBOCALL-PROTESTIn the last election, the Tory efforts were rather crude and rudimentary.  Robocalls, pretending to be official, directed people to the wrong polling place, gave the wrong dates, and otherwise spread misinformation.  Bush league stuff, pun intended.   Now, however, the “majority” has pushed through the House of Commons Bill C-23, the “Fair Elections Act”.  (I swear, politicians enacting a bill to eliminate voting altogether would probably name it the “Freedom from Burdensome Duties Act”.)  Taking a cue from their U.S. Republican alter egos, the Tories have decided they must attack several problems that threaten the very life of Canadian democracy. They include the non-existent problem of voter fraud, as well as the vexing phenomena of too much information, excessive turnout, and too little money.

Here are just a few of the lowlights:

Voting   Bill C-23 reflects an understanding of the general truth that fewer voters mean more right wing victories. If it can also discourage voting by those, say students, less likely to support right-wingers, so much the better.  The bill does away with the practice of “vouching”.  In the last election, about 1% of the voters (120,000) did not have proper ID.  Many could prove their identity but not their current address. But a qualified voter could vouch for them and they were then permitted to vote. Also, the Voter Information Card mailed to them by Elections Canada, telling them where to vote, provided corroboration of addresses. 400,000 did this in the last election.  C-23 eliminates vouching and the use of the Voter Information Card.  In response to the outcry over this transparent ploy, however, the Tories did insert a provision that allows a voter with ID, but without officially acceptable proof of current address to sign an oath. Then, IF a fully qualified voter also signs an oath backing her up, the person gets to vote.  Any of this sound familiar down there? Two kinds of exercise available on election day: the franchise, and hoop-jumping.

Information  This one reminds me a of a Jerry Reed line from Smoky and the Bandit: “You ain’t gonna believe this, sport.”  The independent Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada will no longer be allowed to run ads encouraging people to vote!  The act will also curtail civil literacy programs.  (Hey, if you can’t read the Voter Information Card, you’re hooped from the get-go.)

Enforcement  The Tories never got nailed for the robocall move.  One of the reasons was that the Commissioner of Canada Elections, the independent elections cop, didn’t have subpoena power. The bill does require robocall firms and groups to keep recordings of the calls for three years. The catch is that there is no requirement that they keep the numbers they called.  The government says doing that would invade privacy.  This is the same government that has asked telecom companies for private customer information 1.2 million times annually over the last few years. The companies complied 784,756 times.  This remarkable effort won Canada the inaugural U.S. National Security Agency “Snoopy” award in the International Allies Category. (OK Dave Barry, I made that last one up.)

It is easy to see how these limitations can hamstring any effort by the Commissioner to investigate and prove election misconduct. Fortunately, C-23 relieves him of having to try. He has now been moved to a government agency, Director of Public Prosecutions.  The proverbial fox will now stand on guard for thee, henhouse.

Money  The government still has work to do here.  Canada has no Citizens United  decision and there are spending limits.  The bill does raise the limits and open the door a bit for wealthier candidates. Stand by.

voter-suppressionWHERE TO NOW?  Things may not yet be quite as bad here north of the border, but they may have comparatively greater potential to get worse. Because Republican voter suppression in U.S. states also has such a transparently racist component, there is a lot more hell being raised about it.  There is a chance that people will overcome the obstacles and actually get rid of a sufficient number of Republicans to enable repeal of voter suppression laws and restore some semblance of structural fairness. I hope so.

At this point, I am not so  cautiously optimistic about Canada.  One opposition party, the Liberals, has pledged to repeal C-23 if it wins enough seats in 2015 to form government. The official opposition party, the New Democrats, would undoubtedly do likewise.  But there are two problems. One is the structural deficiency that allowed this 39% “majority” to gain power in the first place. In the short term, the only thing that can be done about that is for Liberals and New Democrats to cooperate during the election so they do not allow bare plurality Conservatives to win seats, and to consider governing by coalition should the two parties gain a majority of the seats.  This is something opposition parties, for some reason have not been willing to do. The Tories were actually inflicted on us in 2006 in the form of a minority government.  “Minority” means very little when the only way to stop something is to bring the whole government down and force a national election, and Canadians are not big on having elections.

The second problem is much more serious. It is the legendary apathy and indifference of Canadians. If no one is knocking down our door at the moment, we are too busy with hockey or marveling at Rob Ford’s antics to be bothered about damage to civil liberties, the environment, the justice system, or anything else. Individuals learning a bit from the Americans about activism would serve all of us infinitely better than the government learning from them about voter suppression.

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1 comment to Learning From a Neighbor (or Neighbour)…U.S. Voter Suppression, Canada Style

  • How disappointing to find that the crazies in the US are infecting outside our borders with the worst that can be exported. Shouldn’t we rather “care enough to send the very best?!” (since you are pulling out lots of old references, dear Bill).