During the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives were linked to a series of voter-suppression tactics now known as the“Robocalls scandal”. Non-Conservative voters were systematically misinformed in order to stop them from voting. In response to this scandal the call went up to amend the election laws in order to empower Elections Canada to stop such actions. Three years later the Conservatives have unveiled their amendments to elections law and, scandalously, the amendments are designed to facilitate voter suppression and actually weaken the ability of Elections Canada to investigate wrongdoing.
Voter suppression is a tactic normally associated with the US Republican Party. Voters who usually oppose the right-wing — typically the poor, immigrant, and student population — are systematically excluded from the ballot. Now, the Canadian Conservative Party is heading down this road.
What is in the Act?
Firstly, the ironically-titled “Fair Elections Act” changes the rules associated with voter identification. The Act removes the process known as “vouching” and the ability to use the voter information card in order to vote. Vouching occurs when a voter has no valid ID, but another voter with ID vouches for their name and address. Approximately 120,000 voters used the vouching process, in addition to over 400,000 who used a voter card, in 2011. This encompasses over 4% of voters, who could swing the vote against the Conservatives in a tight race. It also represents a possible half-a-million people who would be disenfranchised from their right to vote.
The Conservatives justify these “reforms” in order to stop voter fraud. The reality is that the only evidence of systematic fraud is found amongst Conservatives trying to suppress the vote, and not students and poor people picking up extra voting cards. Insisting that everyone needs to have picture ID to vote hits against transient populations — exactly those people who have the most to gain by defeating the Conservatives. This also exacerbates the steady decline in voter turnout. Voter turnout for elections in the 1960s used to average around 79%; today, federal elections barely reach 60% participation.
If these laws are put into place voting numbers are sure to reach new lows — and the Conservatives seem to be just fine with that. In fact, they are even limiting the ability of Elections Canada to communicate with marginalized communities with historically low turnout in order to inform them of their voting rights. Conservative senator Linda Frum even proclaimed that it would constitute a “conflict of interest” if Elections Canada were to encourage Canadians to vote! Frum said, “Motivating voters to fill out a ballot is inherently political.” Wealthy Canadians are currently twice as likely to vote as the poor — showing that this is a “democracy” that is set up to benefit the rich.
Other egregious reforms are a series of changes designed to benefit the incumbent party and thereby reinforce the status-quo. The ruling party will now be able to nominate poll-clerks, further endangering any impartiality within the system. And the Treasury Board, a Cabinet committee linked to the ruling party, would now control hiring decisions by Elections Canada.
The most insidious changes come in campaign financing. Donation limits are being raised by 25%, to $1,500, giving the wealthy more ability to distort the system. Additionally, costs associated with contacting anybody who has donated more than $20 in the last five years will be exempted from election expenses. This is a massive bonus to the Conservatives who have the largest pool of donors, and it will allow them effectively unlimited expenses in this area.
Notable by its absence are reforms that would make the previous voter scandals more difficult to repeat. The Commissioner of Elections will not be able to compel testimony despite this being widely called for. In fact, charges related to the 2011 Robocalls scandal have been dropped, not because there was no evidence of wrongdoing, but because many parties have (completely legally) refused to co-operate with the investigation and there is not enough evidence to pinpoint responsibility for the crime. Despite their “tough-on-crime” mantra, the Conservatives are, in fact, increasing the rights of potential electoral criminals, who must now be informed when an investigation against them is proceeding. (This could be because most investigations to date have been aimed against the Conservatives!) The bill does propose a new registry of robocalls, but this window-dressing change is limited and data will only be kept for a year — far too short a period to conduct a credible investigation.
What is the reaction?
The election reforms have been almost universally condemned by opposition parties, academics, and editorial writers from across the political spectrum. Polls have shown that the more familiar voters are with the bill, the more likely they are to oppose it. The Conservatives, however, are betting on ignorance and are trying to push the legislation through in time for the 2015 federal election.
It is significant that pillars of the establishment such as the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the National Post are all opposing this bill. They are less concerned with the fate of the Conservative Party than with the stability of capitalism as a whole. John F. Kennedy, quite an intelligent representative of liberal capitalism, once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” In 2011, when factoring in non-voters, only 22% of the electorate voted for the ruling Conservatives. This undermines the legitimacy of the system. Blatantly anti-democratic changes risk breaking down the façade that we live in a free and fair society where everybody has an equal say. “Democracy” is the cheapest form of rule for the capitalists. They understand the old adage, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the banks always win," but the mass of the population is not so class-conscious. There are a thousand-and-one ways whereby the workers, youth, and immigrants are swindled out of their rights — but the “Fair Election Act” risks shattering the illusion and raises the question, “What right do they have to rule?”
We live in the epoch of austerity and the bosses need a strong government that can push through unpopular measures. Other democratic rights are being progressively eroded, such as the right to strike, the right of association, and the right of assembly (as seen during the Quebec Student strike, the G20 summit in Toronto, and continuous use of back-to-work and “essential service” legislation). Workers may disagree with such attacks but opposition is blunted by the argument that “they won the election fair-and-square.” Establishment figures are opposing the Act because it is dangerous to the authority of the system in the eyes of the people. Conversely, workers and youth need to wake up to the fact that there is no true democracy while the commanding heights of the economy are in the hands of the rich and powerful.
In the political sphere, workers are occasionally given the right to decide which section of the ruling class is going to rule them in what is an effective four or five-year dictatorship. During this process, monied interests have almost total control of the means of communication. Voting is facilitated for the rich and suppressed for the poor. Richer, less working-class, areas have far more representatives than poorer urban constituencies. Blackmail abounds that any change that benefits the working class will lead to catastrophe. And, none of the options on offer challenge the system in any decisive way. Tommy Douglas presented this idea quite beautifully in the parable of “Mouseland”, but unfortunately the closer Tom Mulcair’s NDP gets to government the more they aim to look identical to the parties of big business.
However, once the worker gets out of the political environment and into the economic, even the appearance of democracy disappears. In matters vital to the sustenance of the population, the working class lives in an absolutist dictatorship. Once you enter the workplace no dissent is permitted. Anybody breaking these rules is fired (the economic equivalent of summary execution). Those workers lucky enough to have formed unions manage to wrest some limited rights away from management, but almost universally there is no democracy in the workplace. When was the last time you elected your boss?
Marxists fight for the utmost political and economic democracy. Unlike the anarchists, we do not reject “parliamentary” democracy while the majority of the workers still have some illusions in the process. Parliament can be used, and has been used, by workers to show in practice what can and cannot be achieved within the system. People learn far more from concrete struggle than by 1001 “principled stands” and boycotts. We are neither parliamentary or anti-parliamentary cretinists and cannot be neutral when faced with attacks on workers rights, be they economic or political. Upon these grounds we must oppose any anti-democratic changes that disenfranchise workers, in order to help workers gain a clear view of how limited parliamentary democracy is.
For workers’ democracy
Marxists are in no way satisfied with the status-quo, which is set up to retain the rule of the capitalists. The Canadian constitution is almost impervious to change, even if that change is to the benefit of the population. Even such a simple democratic act such as the reform of the Senate (let alone its eradication!), has just been ruled virtually impossible by the Supreme Court. Some say that if the system doesn’t work for the workers, then the workers are out of luck. We say that if the system doesn’t work for workers, then we need a new system.
Firstly, get corporate money out of politics. End the elected dictatorship and institute automatic recall of all MPs and similar representatives. Elected figures shouldn’t be bribed by massive paycheques and expense accounts; the best way to keep MPs fighting for those who elect them is if they only receive the average wage of a skilled worker.
Secondly, end the autocracy of the workplace. Institute workers’ democracy and unleash the creativity of the working class that is terrorized and alienated by capitalist production. Free education and lifelong learning will train the workers to take on managerial roles that should be elected, recallable, and on the same wage as their co-workers. The workers already know how best to run production, in opposition to management whose main role seems to be to disorganize the attempts of the workers to unionize. We must use the very best technique and experts, but these must be put towards common benefit and not private gain, while also training as many as possible to take on such specialized roles.
Eventually, we should move to a system where instead of representatives being alienated from the population, we have a network of community councils where delegates from each workplace, school, and neighbourhood allocate resources and set priorities. There should be no division of legislative and executive — everybody who is elected has to do a job and will prove themselves by putting their proposals into action. This is a genuine democracy that comes from the bottom-up and is organically linked to the people — as opposed to the present system where unelected apparatchiks in the Prime Minister’s Office make all the decisions.
The (un)Fair Elections Act is merely the most recent in a series of moves to disenfranchise workers and youth. We need to build a mass movement against this Act but it shouldn’t stop there. The status-quo is already set up to guarantee the domination of the capitalists and workers rights are continuously under attack. We need to fight for a society with both political and economic democracy, a socialist democracy where the working class, from the bottom-up, has the final say on the issues that matter to the majority of the population. Only then will society be able to solve its problems and everybody be able to develop themselves by full and free participation in a genuinely democratic system.