The federal government has recently introduced legislation aimed at significantly revising the powers of Elections Canada. Critics of the Fair Elections Act (Bill C-23) contend that the bill offers an electoral advantage to the governing Conservatives, suggesting that its provisions have been designed to suppress voter turnout among segments of the population traditionally unfriendly to the Conservatives. That may be true, though we would suggest there are at least two ways in which the Fair Elections Act might actually hurt the Tories come 2015. No wonder the Tories were so nervous. The government had been noticeably skittish about what Marc Mayrand would say before the Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee Thursday: not only had it kept the chief electoral officer largely out of the loop in the months before it introduced its landmark Fair Elections Act, but there was doubt whether he would even be allowed to testify about it afterwards. A promise to that effect had been made to the NDP’s David Christopherson the night before to persuade him to end his filibuster of the Act in committee. Yet on the day Mr. Mayrand’s testimony was interrupted by the calling of not one but two votes in the Commons just as he was scheduled to speak.
Perhaps the most controversial component of the Fair Elections Act is the change that disallows Elections Canada to actively encourage citizens to vote. Instead, the government agency will be limited to providing information on when, where and how to vote. As Elections Canada’s efforts at encouraging turnout are primarily targeted at four groups in particular — youths under 30, ethnic minorities, Aboriginals and the disabled — this change fits the argument that the Conservatives are attempting to suppress turnout among specific segments of the population. Historically, these groups have offered relatively little support for the Conservative Party.
But that seemed to change by 2011. Indeed, one of the noteworthy features of the 2011 election, was the transfer of support of ethnic minorities from opposition parties to the Conservatives. The Conservative courtship of this segment of the population is well documented and a decrease in turnout among ethnic minorities could thus backfire against the Tories in 2015.
Results obtained using data from the Canadian Election Study — an academic survey conducted of every federal election since 1965 — suggest that such an effect is indeed likely to occur. In years past, Elections Canada would conduct media campaigns through television, radio, newspaper and online before each federal election, actively encouraging Canadians to vote. According to Canadian Election Study data, ethnic minorities who reported being exposed to these entreaties were nearly five times more likely than other electors to vote. If Elections Canada is no longer able to encourage Canadians to turnout, Conservative electoral support may well be hurt among ethnic minorities.