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Oppal Confused on Voter ID Law?

AG calls tightened requirements a 'good move' but cites report that says opposite.

By Andrew MacLeod 13 May 2008 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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BC Attorney General Wally Oppal.

Attorney General Wally Oppal said tightening voter identification requirements is a "good move" that will prevent abuses of the province's electoral system.

He also said the changes are based on recommendations made in a 2006 report by chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld. However, that report does not recommend strengthening the requirements -- in fact it suggests easing them in some situations.

"I think it's a good move," said Oppal, who pointed out the proposed legislation is in line with federal laws. "There has to be some responsibility, as well as a right, conferred on people in a democracy when you want to vote. Voting is a right of course, but it also carries with it a responsibility."

The proposed rules included in Bill 42, the Election Amendment Act, require voters to have identification issued either by the province or the federal government that includes their name, photograph and address. Unlike the federal rules, the provincial rules also accept proof of status under the Indian Act.

Without identification, a person can vote if somebody else who is on the voters list will vouch for them. Nobody will be allowed to vouch for more than one person.

New rules challenged

The proposed changes have met criticism from anti-poverty advocates, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the NDP, who say it will make voting more difficult for people who are homeless or who have recently moved.

PIAC is already challenging the federal rules, and will fight the province's changes as well. "We expect the provincial legislation, if they are foolish enough to proceed with it, to fall along with the federal law," the organization's executive director, Jim Quail, told The Tyee.

Oppal said the proposed rules won't be a barrier to people who want to vote.

There are three ways to register, he said. "I think people should be able to fit into one of the three categories," he said. "I recognize it may be more difficult for people who are homeless. All you really need is one person from the riding to attest to the fact this person is eligible to vote in the riding. I don't think that's really asking too much. We have to guard against potential voter registration abuse."

Asked if there had been any such abuses, he said, "We have no documented evidence of abuses, but it's always good to have precautionary steps like that. If abuses do take place, then we're going to be criticized for not having the framework there to prevent abuses."

Report spurred changes

The change was proposed after the independent officer who oversees provincial elections made suggestions for improving how we vote, Oppal said. "What's happened now is the chief electoral officer came to us in 2006 and said the Elections Act has to be reformed and that amendments should take place," he said. That report included 60 recommendations, he said.

"We thought it was an appropriate time to re-examine the Elections Act, so that's another amendment we put in there."

Except the changes Oppal is making do not appear to have been recommended by the chief electoral officer.

Harry Neufeld submitted his Chief Electoral Officer: Recommendations for Legislative Change report to the speaker in March 2006. Such reports are written after each general election, the report says. The government has failed to act on most of the suggestions made since 1996, it says. "Unfortunately, very few of the recommendations have been acted upon."

Law makes it 'harder to vote': NDP MLA

The 30-page report suggests easing the identification requirements. As things are, a potential voter has to provide two documents that between them include proof of his or her name, address and signature. If the individual does not have proof of an address, the person still needs two documents and "may make a solemn declaration as to their place of residence."

Neufeld found, "This requirement is a barrier to registration for voters who are in medical facilities or correctional facilities, where the individuals do not have identity documents in their possession."

He suggested giving election officials discretion to only require one document with a potential voter's name and a solemn declaration of their address when they are voting in a medical or correctional facility.

The NDP's homelessness and mental health critic, Vancouver-Kensington MLA David Chudnovsky, said it is unbelievable and ironic the Liberal government would make it harder for homeless people to vote at a time when there are more of them than at any time since the Great Depression.

"Our problem in B.C. is not that too many people vote, it's that too few people vote," he said. "The purpose should be to make it easier for people to vote, not make it harder. This legislation does make it harder."

Oppal introduced the bill on April 30. It is among several bills that will be passed at 5 p.m. on May 29, even if it has not yet gone through all the normal stages of debate.

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