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Bill C-23 offside: Ontario election watchdog

OTTAWA - Federal Conservatives have held up Ontario as a model for the proposed crackdown on potential voter fraud in its controversial overhaul of national election laws.

But the province's chief electoral officer says the federal bill adopts only one measure instituted in Ontario — a ban on vouching — without adopting any compensating mechanisms to ensure voters without proper identification aren't deprived of their fundamental democratic right to vote.

As a result, Greg Essensa told The Canadian Press on Tuesday that he fears thousands of voters will be disenfranchised — echoing a virtually universal criticism of the bill by other electoral experts, both at home and abroad.

During hearings on the bill, Conservative MPs have noted that most provinces, including Ontario, don't allow individuals to vouch for voters who don't have proper ID. On that score, they've suggested the federal government is simply catching up with current provincial practice.

Essensa acknowledged that Ontario banned vouching in 2003. But he said it has tried to compensate for that by allowing voters to use their voter information cards (VICs) as one of two pieces of required ID.

The VICs, which include each voter's address, have been "an extremely valuable tool" used by those who would otherwise have trouble proving residency in their polling area — primarily students, elderly voters in seniors homes and aboriginals, he said.

The federal government is proposing to ban the use of VICs as proof of residency at the same time that it abolishes vouching — a double whammy.

"I am a firm believer, if you are eliminating vouching, you do need to provide some other tool, like the voter information card, as an acceptable form of ID," Essensa said.

If that's not done, he said he agrees with national chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand and other experts that "you might in fact disenfranchise individuals who cannot provide evidence of their residency."

Mayrand and other electoral experts have warned the combined measures could strip up to 250,000 voters of their right to cast ballots.

Pierre Poilievre, minister responsible for democratic reform, has defended the measures as necessary to prevent people from voting twice or in ridings where they don't live.

But, like other experts, Essensa said he's seen no evidence of deliberate voter fraud in his more than 28 years in the electoral oversight business, six of them as Ontario's chief watchdog.

While the bill aims to crack down on what Essensa believes is a non-existent problem, he noted that it fails to give Elections Canada the powers needed to investigate possible wrongdoing, such as the misleading robocalls that plagued the 2011 election, or ensure that political parties adhere to election financing laws.

Essensa, like most provincial watchdogs, has the power to compel testimony during investigations and to scrutinize parties' books, including demanding to see all receipts and invoices. The Harper government has refused to give the same powers to Mayrand and elections commissioner Yves Cote, who enforces the Canada Elections Act.

"We, as sort of the guardians of democracy, we need to have the ability to make sure that ... we're fulfilling our statutory mandate and sometimes that does require us to compel someone to provide either the bank records or compel some testimony so we can actually get to the truth of the matter."

Essensa had praise for some provisions of the bill — for instance the proposed registry of automated phone messages and stiffer penalties for anyone who impersonates an elections official.

But he said he fears it would put an end to Elections Canada's role in educating Canadians on the importance of voting. That would end projects like the Grades 5 and 10 curriculum developed jointly by the Ontario and national watchdog agencies to teach kids about our democracy.

He also fears it would end Elections Canada's ability to experiment with needed modernization of the electoral system, requiring Parliament to sign off on any pilot projects, such as electronic voting.

Despite mounting criticism of bill, the government appears intent on pushing it through by the time Parliament breaks for the summer in late June, with few, if any, significant amendments.

Even before a Commons committee finishes hearing witnesses or considering possible amendments, Conservatives in the Senate moved Tuesday to begin examination of the bill in the upper house in what's known a pre-study.

Government Senate Leader Claude Carignan said the move would allow the upper house more time to study and debate the complex bill, rather than waiting for the House of Commons to pass the bill and then being rushed to complete its own work.

Liberal senators delayed a vote Tuesday on the pre-study motion. Carignan served notice that debate will be cut short and a vote forced on Wednesday.

Note to readers: With vars Elections-Overhaul-Robocalls

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