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Alberta

Alberta Joins the Battle to Deny the Right to Vote

Right-wing governments across North America have targeted democracy.

Jared Wesley and Alex Ballos 6 Jun 2024The Conversation

Jared Wesley is a political science professor at the University of Alberta. Alex Ballos is a research assistant for the Common Ground politics project at the university. This article was originally published in the Conversation.

Many Alberta voters may be stripped of the right to vote now that a controversial law has been passed. Bill 20, the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, is part of a larger suite of bills designed to clamp down on dissent.

Bill 20, which was passed in May, has garnered a lot of criticism for making it easier for the provincial government to remove locally elected officials and overturn municipal bylaws. A lesser-known provision would also eliminate the practice of vouching during local elections. Vouching allows a verified person living in their polling district to attest to another person’s identity so they can participate in the election.

The move might appear relatively uncontroversial. Indeed, most voters produce some form of physical identification at the polling station, like a driver’s licence.

Yet, not all citizens have access to up-to-date ID with proof of residency. Denying eligible Canadian citizens their right to vote is a dangerous precedent that fundamentally undermines a cornerstone of democracy: accessibility.

Importance of vouching

Vouching was established as an added safeguard for our elections, as previously citizens would only need to attest to their own eligibility to vote. It is an essential process that enables all eligible citizens to cast their ballot — whether they’re someone living in a rural area with only a post office box on their licence, a person who lacks a fixed address, students or mobile workers, people who lack easy access to registries offices, those who cannot afford the cost, or someone whose ID has been lost, stolen or expired around election day.

A key part of voter validation processes in most elections across Canada for decades, these vouching provisions have come under threat. Motivated by unsubstantiated concerns over voter fraud, irregularities and election integrity, some conservative politicians are borrowing pages out of the Republican playbook in the United States to restrict the number and types of people who are eligible to vote. Voter ID laws are one such measure.

Dangers of voter ID laws

According to Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver, Bill 20 is about “strengthening the rules so that Albertans can continue to have trust in local elections.” However, the government has failed to provide evidence that trust is waning, that voter fraud is taking place or that Albertans want to do away with vouching as the solution.

In fact, evidence shows precisely the opposite. Elections Alberta has recorded only seven cases of voting irregularities since 2013. According to the government’s own survey in fall 2023, nearly half (46 per cent) of Albertans want to keep vouching as part of our system of election integrity, with only 30 per cent wanting to abandon it. Furthermore, Alberta municipal leaders have argued that voter ID laws will not instil confidence in our democratic system, but rather sow distrust in the electoral process and depress turnout.

In this sense, voter ID laws in Alberta are a solution in search of a problem. As the BC Civil Liberties Association puts it:

“Voter ID laws seek to address a single, largely speculative problem — an unproven phenomenon of wrongful impersonation of voters — at far too great a cost — disenfranchisement of Canada’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens.”

The BCCLA was responding to attempts by the Conservative Party of Canada to do away with vouching at the federal level. Spearheaded by then government minister, now Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, the Fair Elections Act of 2014 drew criticism from Canada’s chief electoral officer, who estimated it would disenfranchise up to 100,000 citizens. The issue did not make it to the Supreme Court of Canada before the law was repealed.

The United Conservative Party government in Alberta took a look at vouching in 2021, tasking a Select Special Democratic Accountability Committee to examine the necessity of voter ID laws to protect election integrity in the province. The UCP-led process concluded that “vouching is key to ensuring that every Albertan has the opportunity to vote, not just those individuals who have the ability and means to obtain formal identification.”

This begs the question: Why, only three years later, is the UCP government forging ahead with a voter ID law against both evidence and the public will?

Draconian laws

Most Canadian jurisdictions have taken the route of expanding the franchise and making voting easier for eligible citizens. However, Alberta is following the path of many Republican-led U.S. states that have seen a degradation of voting rights in recent decades.

They have done so under a similar guise as the UCP: claims of restoring electoral trust. Hearkening back to the Jim Crow era, states like Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Dakota and Oklahoma have introduced laws restricting the ability of eligible voters to cast ballots.

The spread and trajectory of these measures is alarming but predictable. Built on a faulty foundation, the laws are unable to address unfounded fears of voter fraud that motivated them. As a result, legislators introduce more and more draconian measures, including strict voter registration processes targeting marginalized communities.

Voter ID laws in Georgia failed to deliver on their promise to address “irregularities,” for instance, prompting subsequent attempts to implement even more aggressive laws in 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2024.

Similar cases can be observed in Florida. Admired by Premier Danielle Smith, Gov. Ron DeSantis has recently intensified efforts to curb voter participation with the proposed Senate Bill 7050. If passed, this bill would make it harder for people to register to vote through third-party organizations. In Florida, racialized people are five times more likely to rely on third-party organizations than white people when registering to vote.

The bill also imposes restrictions on mail-in voting and could see more voters having their registration cancelled. These tactics are clearly part of a broader voter suppression strategy.

Voter ID laws in the United States should serve as a stark warning for Albertans. Embracing draconian measures based on unfounded fears serves only to amplify distrust in electoral processes that, by all available evidence, are working well to curb abuse.

If the pace and expansion of voter ID laws in the United States is any indication, Canadians across the country ought to take note of Bill 20 in Alberta and voice their concerns about the potential impact on their own voting rights.The Conversation  [Tyee]

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