A supporter of Stephen Harper’s government has suggested that Elections Canada is in an inherent conflict of interest because of its twin goals of increasing voter turnout and improving the integrity of the system. It is argued that, in light of this conflict, Elections Canada’s concerns about the government’s proposed Fair Elections Act can’t be taken seriously. Does this conflict really exist? Since its introduction in early February, the government’s proposed Fair Elections Act has been widely debated in the pages of our major newspapers, the focus of town hall meetings held across the country by the NDP, and the subject of testimony and heated questioning before a House of Commons Committee. The bill has even been the topic of a pre-study by a Senate Committee, an indication that the government would like to move it forward quickly. One of the most hotly contested parts of the bill would put an end to vouching, a process that allows people without appropriate identification to vote, provided another elector in their polling division is able to vouch for their identity and residence.
The government says that vouching undermines the integrity of our system and wants to eliminate it. Opponents – and there are a lot of us – argue that there is no evidence supporting the need to end vouching and that doing so could disenfranchise more than 100,000 Canadians. The government has also gone on the offensive against Elections Canada, an institution with a stellar reputation around the globe.
The recent argument that Elections Canada is in a conflict of interest because of their competing goals merits examination. The suggestion is that the two goals of increasing voter turnout and improving electoral integrity are fundamentally at odds. At a superficial level, there is some validity to this argument. A system that maximizes electoral integrity will necessarily impose stringent requirements on voters, including identification requirements. This will, in turn, mean less people who are able to cast a ballot. Conversely, if we try, at all costs, to maximize the number of people who vote, we need to lessen strict ID requirements which might, in turn, undermine integrity. Of course, this is not a true conflict of interest, just a fact of life in that that sometimes, individuals and institutions have to try to achieve more than one goal at a time. A restauranteur wants to maximize business (and therefore turn over tables) while at the same time providing great service to patrons. This doesn’t create a conflict – just a need to balance interests. The question to be asked about the Fair Elections Act: does it strike the right balance? This is really the essence of the meaning of fairness, after all.