Voter Suppression Measures and Canadian Elections

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I’m reading Michael Harris’ book Party of One. I’m not very far in it but is plenty of interesting information in it. It helps to see how the effort to make elections buyable goes right back to Stephen Harper’s beginning.

When Stephen Harper first got a seat in the government it was as a Reform politician, and his campaign benefited from the National Citizen’s Coalition (NCC) putting $50,000 against his opponent, because his opponent was in favor of third-party spending limits in elections. Harper would later work for the NCC. In 2004, just two years before becoming Prime Minister, Harper went to the Supreme Court on behalf of the NCC to try to fight spending limits. He lost in court then. While he could have potentially changed these laws as Prime Minister he didn’t, possibly because he realized that the laws help limit union spending too.

Of course he has done what he can to get around spending limits. His party broke spending limits in the 2006 election (the “in and out” scandal was about avoiding spending limits). Then this year by calling the election so early, he’s increased the amount of money that can be spent on this election. His party is always the most well funded, so they are the primary beneficiaries to the higher spending limits.

The Conservative’s “Fair Elections Act” raised the personal donation limit so individuals can donate more to parties. This means that parties that rely on the upper class for donations will be able to raise more money while parties that rely on the middle or lower class for donations will not see a change. They also added a weird exemption that classes fundraising efforts differently than advertisements, basically allowing parties to get around the election spending limits. Michael Harris’ book points out that the ability to spend more money will help campaigns that wish to hire professional companies to do micro-targeting and voter suppression efforts.

The third and fourth chapters of Harris’ book talk about the voter suppression measures taken in 2011. The courts found that there had been suppression but that it wasn’t enough to void the election. Reading through Mr. Harris’ description I get angry all over again. I read about people going out to vote – hundreds showing up at a mall because fraudulent phone messages directed them there. People were dropped off by family members who couldn’t find parking spaces only to discover they were no where near their real voting place. There was construction near the mall so people had trouble navigating there through traffic only to discover they had been lied to. It is angering to think about it on the level of what it does for democracy – how it discourages voter participation, how it leads to people being elected who might not have without the deception – but it is also angering when you think of the individuals. Individuals were giving up a part of their day to participate in the civic duty we call voting, and someone deliberately, maliciously made it harder to in an effort to prevent them from being able to vote. When someone at the local Guelph Conservative campaign headquarters had denounced the fraudulent calls he received a phone call from the national campaign office telling him not to.

According to this book, when the author asked Michael Sona why he let himself get mixed up in unethical things, part of Sona’s reasoning was that he thought “the Conservatives might be bad, but the alternative was so much worse that it justified their tactics.” That idea that something is so bad, anything is justified to solve it. I’ve heard that so many other places. I’ve been in groups where people have started talking like that, saying that their cause is so important nothing else matters, and I’ve had to leave them because I don’t like that. When people believe their goal justifies any action, we have a huge problem.

During the investigation of the fraudulent calls Election Canada had been hindered by the fact that they could ask key people for interviews and those people could simply say no, they didn’t want to participate. Imagine trying to investigate a crime without being able to insist on testimony. When the Harper government started talking of writing a Fair Elections Act, Elections Canada authorities requested the power of subpoena during investigations and access to supporting documents for the expenses of political parties.

But the Harper Government benefited from a weak Elections Canada. Instead of strengthening Election Canada’s ability to investigate, the “Fair Elections Act” took away from Elections Canada. Elections Canada is not allowed to warn the public about voter suppression measures. If this election people end up getting false phone calls, Elections Canada can’t send out word to the public. They can’t say “ignore that misinformation.” They are forbidden from announcing the problems. They could make announcements last election. They could help alert the public to problems. They can’t this year.

There are other problems too. Apparently the incumbent’s party gets to appoint all central polling supervisors now. In the past Elections Canada got to. Now the parties do. This increases the chance of partisan abuse at the polls.

The Party of One book is interesting partly because it includes quotes and details from people who worked closely with Stephen Harper – many who share Harper’s ideas and values. I end up feeling sorry for the Michael Sona, whom was thrown under the bus, left to take responsibility for fraudulent calls. I have sympathy for the ambitious young guy who got pulled in bit by bit to the culture of the party campaign offices. It sounds completely impossible for him to have arranged the fraudulent calls on his own.

In a letter to the author of the book Michael Soma said:

“It’s so strange. Where did everything go wrong for a government that came into town on accountability? I guess corruption happens the same way. It doesn’t just swoop in and take over everything. It starts as a little action, a little boundary pushing, a little rule-breaking. And before you know it, your incrementalism on breaking the rules has led to entire elections being tainted.”

There’s probably a lot of people who are in a strange position during this election: wanting to stand by the party they feel best represents their views, but at the same time aware that the party has been doing some pretty awful things. Where does one vote if one wants to support the Conservative economics or political views but does not want to support the corruption?

The Council of Canadians, an advocacy group that has challenged the “Fair Elections Act” in court has created a website for people to report election fraud and voter suppression measures. Please help share the address.

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