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Seniors groups say election reforms baffling

Seniors groups say election reforms bafflingAn election official hands back a marked ballot for the federal election in Toronto on May 2, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OTTAWA - A trio of seniors group representatives say they are baffled by Conservative changes that will make it more difficult for many politically engaged seniors to vote in the next federal election.

And student representatives are scratching their heads over the proposed elimination of Elections Canada outreach programs that target low youth turnout.

MPs looking at Bill C-23 are holding evening hearings as the Harper government pushes to have the massive elections overhaul through the committee process — where potential changes could be made — and back before Parliament by the beginning of May.

Six interveners told a parliamentary committee Monday night the Fair Elections Act is a deeply flawed effort. But MPs had heard it all before.

"It just baffles my mind why the government's so intransigent to everyone coming forward saying there's problems here," Pat Kerwin of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada told the committee.

From the chief electoral officer to a Saskatchewan First Nations band administrator, MPs have been warned repeatedly in recent weeks that tightened voter identification rules will disenfranchise tens of thousands of electors.

"Frankly, it doesn't even make sense for you as a Conservative," Kerwin, whose group represents 500,000 pensioners and their spouses, told the MPs.

"Seniors tend to vote more for the Conservative party than any other ones. Yet you're going to limit them in voting. It betrays commons sense and even political sense to me."

Danis Prud'homme, chief executive officer of Reseau FADOQ, a Quebec 50-plus association with more than 300,000 members, said the Conservative bill is supposed to limit election fraud while increasing election spending by political parties and limiting Elections Canada's powers

"What brand of logic is the government applying to justify such a reform?" asked Prud'homme.

At the other end of the voting demographic are under-engaged youth.

Calvin Fraser, secretary general of the Canadian Teachers Federation, said the popular Student Vote Canada program — which prepares high school students not yet of voting age on how to participate — will lose its non-partisan Elections Canada partner under provisions in the bill that sharply curtail the agency's public outreach.

"It seems to me this is absolutely the wrong time to discourage participation," said Fraser, adding he hears students saying their vote won't matter and the system is unfair.

He urged the MPs to change the bill to free up Elections Canada to continue its public work.

But with the Commons beginning a 16-day break at the end of the week, time for examining and fixing the bill is running out.

The Conservative-dominated Senate voted Monday to begin a "pre-study" of the legislation before the Commons is finished with the bill or has made any changes, with hearings getting underway Tuesday morning.

The government wants the sweeping legislation passed into law by the end of June.

Among many issues, interveners have zeroed in on new rules that will make it more difficult for a significant subset of voters to prove their residency and be eligible to vote.

Before 2007, no identification at all was required to vote.

Since the Conservatives brought in voting ID requirements in 2007, voters must present a piece of government-issued photo ID with their address (a driver's licence is one of the few such pieces in most provinces). Without photo ID including an address, voters must have two pieces of ID, at least one of which must show a home address.

If a voter did not have proof of address, another fully identified person could "vouch" for them.

The new law eliminates the practice of vouching. It also forbids the use of voter information cards, or VICs, mailed by Elections Canada to everyone on the voters' list, as proof of residency.

"To us retirees, the removal of the VIC is a solution looking for a problem that has not been found," Kerwin told the committee.

He said many seniors use the VICs to tell them where their polling station is. He questioned why the government wants to disqualify one of the pieces of mail seniors are most likely to have in their possession at the polling station.

"They all bring it with them: 'I've got the right to vote here,'" he said.

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