Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor for sharing his time and my colleagues in the House for unanimously agreeing to let him do so.
I have some questions about the bill. I happen to represent a riding where possibly one of the higher number of electors abroad cast ballots, given the fact that Foreign Affairs and National Defence headquarters, and many public servants, are in the riding. I have had a number of people write to me from abroad asking, “What gives?”
The first thing I need to understand, and I hope the government would offer a rationale for this, is that it used to be that Canadians living abroad beyond five years could not vote unless they were members of the Canadian Armed Forces, public servants working abroad, or Canadian citizens working for an international organization of which Canada was a member, such as NATO or the United Nations. They and their families could keep voting if they had been there for longer than five years.
Two students in the United States wanted to vote in the last general election and could not, because they had been abroad for more than five years and were not part of the forces, were not public servants, and were not working for an international organization that Canada is a member of, so they were not allowed to vote. They challenged that in court. That is the decision we heard referred to this morning, Frank et al. v. AG Canada. I have read it, and I will quote a couple of paragraphs from it in my presentation.
The reason I am bringing this up is that the distinction that remains standing in Bill C-50 is the Canadian Forces. They will be able to continue voting, as they did before, but their spouses and families, and certainly public servants and Canadian citizens working for international organizations, will not.
I have had two people write to me who are working as interpreters for NATO. They are Canadian citizens, and they are concerned now, because the rules under which they used to be able to vote would not apply if the bill were adopted.
What is the rationale for limiting this to the Canadian Forces and restricting, through Bill C-50's measures, the rest of Canadian citizens who used to be able to vote even if they were abroad for longer than five years? That needs to be explained.
I will quote two paragraphs from the decision, because I think they may indicate the nature of the debate here. The magnitude of the vote is not all that much. In paragraph 113 of the decision, it states:
I am equally troubled by the notion of what is or is not “fair” to the resident majority of voters. Substantive “fairness” is almost always in the eye of the beholder. To put the issue in context, since the Special Voting Rules were implemented in 1993, a vastly smaller number of non-resident Canadian citizens have exercised their right to vote than expected. Elections Canada estimated at the time that approximately 2,000,000 Canadians were living abroad and planned for 200,000 registrations. In the election that followed, a little over 15,000 special ballots were requested and issued. Over the next several general elections, the number of external ballots issued ranged from a low of 10,733 (in 2011) to a high of 19,230 (in 2000). In the most recent election, in the ten Canadian ridings with the highest number of special ballots, as a percentage of total registered electors in the constituency, the non-resident votes ranged from a low of 0.05% to a high of 0.2%. Also in that election, Elections Canada reported that barely 6,000 votes were recorded from international electors, compared to approximately 26,000 votes from Canadian Forces electors and almost 15,700 votes from incarcerated electors.
The other paragraph I will quote is paragraph 114.
This is comes from the government in its presentation of arguments.
The second objective, concerns over electoral fraud, while less vague than the first, is subject to the same frailties. In this case, the government has failed to identify any particular problem with non-resident voter fraud or of non-resident voting causing an undue drain on Parliamentary resources. Indeed, the only evidence of these concerns at all comes from the speculation of a political science professor teaching at the University of Buffalo - State University of New York, who opines that an increase in non-resident voting “could,” “may” or “might” give rise to concerns in the future. The available evidence from Elections Canada is that there are no documented problems associated with non-resident voting.
The reason I brought these up is that the numbers also show quite clearly that 6,000 of two million non-resident Canadians voted versus 26,000 Canadian Forces members. I am wondering if that is part of the rationale with respect to the first question I asked. It would be good for Canadians to know that.
Also, as has been brought up a number of times, there is the matter of delays. It is true that if 36 days, which is the span of an election, is the time that triggers when one can register, it will cause significant problems. One has to wonder if indeed that is not a way of suppressing votes that would otherwise be more likely to be cast. The question asked by a colleague of the member for Toronto—Danforth is quite accurate. Given that we now have a fixed election date law, why can Canadians who are resident abroad who want to vote not start registering now? If the law says that the election is going to be on October 19, 2015, then it would help Elections Canada, it would help voters, and it would help declared registered candidates. They would be able to approach these folks in terms of trying to convince them to vote one way or the other. Why not now, as opposed to once the writ is dropped? That to me is troubling, and I would like to hear the rationale for that, too.
Finally, there is a question about the last address. Why would people have to register every election, when they did not have to before? I am wondering about that. If they are part of the registry, and nothing has changed in their citizenship and so forth, why must they always re-register, and with the same address? What happens if they have lived in an apartment building that is now demolished and the address does not exist anymore? Will they be able to register if the address does not exist anymore? If the apartment building is gone and all their neighbours are gone, how will they get someone to ascertain that they were indeed living there? It is going to be difficult.
I wonder to what extent the Conservatives might be open to amendments to this kind of provision, because I do not believe they have thought things through completely.
Finally, a number of us in this room have been declared candidates for our respective parties. I have always tried to send some material to Canadians residing abroad who are eligible to vote. If that registry no longer exists, and if they cannot register until the writ is dropped, then obviously, the local candidates, of whatever party, will have a difficult time communicating with these Canadian citizens who are eligible to vote, presumably, but who may be in the midst of trying to register. Therefore, we would have no idea of how to communicate with them, and voters will not have any idea of who the local candidates are.
All of these are issues of some concern. I have received, again, a number of complaints from constituents who are Canadian citizens who would vote abroad, and I hope that these will be answered either here by the minister or in committee, either by the government or by Elections Canada. These are serious matters, and if they are not answered, I would think we would not be able to support such a bill.