When he called this election on August 2, 40 days earlier than he needed to, Stephen Harper launched Canadians on the longest and most expensive federal election campaign in our modern history.
The Prime Minister who promised to clean up our electoral system has given us a 2015 election campaign that will cost Canadian taxpayers $125 million more than it has to, allow his Conservative party to spend $54.5 million to overwhelm and out-spend their opponents, muzzle independent third-party voices by capping their advertising spending during the campaign period, and impose new rules that are poised to prevent tens of thousands of eligible Canadian voters from casting ballots.
This latest manipulation of Canada’s electoral system by Stephen Harper continues nearly a decade of calculated actions aimed at keeping the Conservative government in power at any cost, weakening the opposition parties, keeping legitimate voices of critique in check, and treating voters with contempt.
When he became Prime Minister in 2006, Stephen Harper promised electoral reform to take political manipulation out of Canada’s electoral system. By 2007, the Conservative government had legislation in place requiring federal elections to be held every four years, with Stephen Harper touting that “Fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar simply for partisan political advantage.” But in 2008, ignoring his own law, Stephen Harper called a snap election two years ahead of schedule, without Parliament’s consent or vote.
In 2014, the Harper government continued its effort to reinvent how elections are conducted, passing the so-called Fair Elections Act, legislation in effect for the first time for the 2015 election that changes how Canadians are able to prove their eligibility to vote, how political parties and third-party advocacy groups are allowed to raise and spend money in election campaigns, and how voting irregularities are reviewed and violators held to account.
While the Harper government calls the changes “a reasonable package that enables everyone to vote while protecting the integrity of the system,” Canada’s chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has sounded the alarm that some of the changes “will not serve Canadians well.” Democracy advocates warn this election will see some groups, especially students, seniors and First Nations, shut out of polling places.
Under the Fair Elections Act, voter information cards sent to all electors by Elections Canada will no longer be considered valid identification showing proof of residency – each voter will have to present a driver’s license or two pieces of ID including one with an address. Electoral experts say these changes stand to keep tens of thousands of legitimate voters from casting ballots, especially young people, seniors and First Nations. Youth advocates say the effort is aimed at suppressing the votes of young people who don’t tend to support the Conservatives.
The Harper government also tried to eliminate vouching, the procedure in which a person registered in the same polling area and having the proper ID can attest to the address of another person who does not have proof of address. When Elections Canada protested that ending vouching would prevent 120,000 eligible voters from casting ballots, the Conservatives changed their plan, and in this election a registered voter will be able to vouch for one other person if that person has valid identification.
Election finance experts say the Fair Elections Act changes will allow political parties to spend more, especially incumbents with stronger fundraising capacities, while choking off the voices of independent third parties by capping their spending on election advertising.
In this 78-day campaign, parties with candidates in every riding can spend up to $54.5 million, compared with $25 million in a normal 37-day campaign. But only the Conservatives have that much money ready to spend, giving them a huge advantage over the other parties – and with much of that spending rebated by the government, it’s taxpayers who end up footing most of the bill.
By calling the election early, Stephen Harper has silenced the voices of legitimate, independent third parties who want to express their views on the issues outside the campaign. And within the campaign period, these advocacy groups now face tight spending restrictions: third party election advertising in this longer campaign is capped at $439,410 and $8,788 per riding, a fraction of what the Harper Conservatives will spend in their bid to stay in power.
And for the first time, this year’s election will see Elections Canada and the chief electoral officer muzzled by the Fair Elections Act, unable to speak out on critical election issues, such as taking action to correct the vote-suppressing misinformation sent to voters in the misdirecting robocalls of the 2011 election.
These changes to how Canadian elections are conducted demonstrate how Stephen Harper and the Conservatives claim to be doing one thing, making elections more fair – while actually doing another, manipulating the system to improve their chances of staying in power.
It’s a pattern of behaviour that reinforces the conviction of Canadians United for Change that the Harper Conservatives do not act in the interests of Canadians but act only in self-interest, no longer deserve the trust of voters, and should not be supported in their campaign for re-election in 2015.