National student group says new laws will put a chill on youth voting
KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CUP) — The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) plans to take the federal government to court before the next federal election.
The CFS, along with the Council of Canadians and three independent citizens, recently filed a constitutional challenge against the Fair Elections Act, claiming new identification requirements violate the right to vote.
As of last June, voters are no longer able to prove their residence by having another registered voter vouch for them at the polls or using their voter identification cards. Instead, voters must provide government-issued identification with a local address.
According to CFS national chairperson Jessica McCormick, the new measures make voting unattractive to students attending school away from their home riding since they often lack local identification. She said the new laws would only lower an already low youth voter turnout.
“If youth vote in more significant numbers, we can have a significant impact on the outcome of an election for any of the parties, and that’s why it’s so important that we (make it) easier for people to vote, not more difficult,” she said.
According to Elections Canada, less than 39 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 voted in 2011, 22 per cent lower than the total voter turnout.
McCormick said she herself is one of the more than 120,000 Canadians to use vouching in the last federal election.
More than 2,000 pages of evidence are now before the Ontario Superior Court, including testimonies from voters who say they were turned away from polls in the last federal election, evidence from CFS on low youth voter turnout, and evidence from civic engagement group Apathy is Boring and former B.C. Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld.
Kamloops Conservative MP Cathy McLeod said she cannot comment on CFS’s challenge since it is before the courts, but said she fully supports the Fair Elections Act.
“The Fair Elections Act will make our election laws tougher, clearer and easier to follow. It will also ensure that election lawbreakers face the consequences for their actions,” she said in an email to the Omega.
McLeod maintains that eliminating vouching and voter ID cards decreases voter fraud. And while these two options are off the table, McLeod pointed out that there are 39 other options for government identification, including library cards, Indian status cards, and utility bills.
In place of vouching, voters can now sign an oath of residence at the polls, provided another registered voter living in the same polling area signs a similar oath to back up the claim of residence.
Anyone voting outside his or her riding (such as out-of-town university students) can also apply for a special ballot through Elections Canada. The ballot will be mailed to the applicant and must be mailed back by Election Day.
Under new legislation, Elections Canada can no longer encourage people to vote, although later amendments allow it to run educational programs for high school students.
“If Elections Canada is just limited to telling people when and where and how they can vote, that doesn’t really provide the extra motivation that’s required to get first-time voters out to the polls,” McCormick said.
“I think if we want to encourage participation in our democratic structures here in Canada, that work needs to come from Elections Canada as well as other civil society organizations and political parties.”
According to McCormick, Elections Canada has been working with CFS to develop educational programs and to research possible locations for campus polling stations. Under new legislation, these programs will not be able to run.
McLeod did not address the limits placed on Elections Canada in her email.
With the possibility of an election being called anytime from now to October, time is running out for CFS to get their day in court.
McCormick has said that if the election is called before their case is decided, CFS is ready to apply for an injunction, which would “hit pause” on disputed measures of the Fair Elections Act until the court case could be heard.
Before getting the green light the injunction would first have to convince a judge that it represents a serious issue to society and irreparable harm might occur without the injunction. The judge must also weigh any inconvenience the injunction would put on the parties involved.