Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Elections Canada woes due to Tories: NDP

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OTTAWA -- The Harper government is under fire for cutting Elections Canada's budget even as the agency struggles to address rampant procedural errors and widespread allegations of cheating during the 2011 vote.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair charged Wednesday that the eight per cent cut to Elections Canada's annual budget is symptomatic of a government that has no respect for democratic institutions.

"The Conservatives should be doing anything but cutting Elections Canada," Mulcair said.

"We're not coming to the defence of our democratic institutions. The vote is the essential part and, if we can't even guarantee that the people who are voting are entitled to vote and that could throw off the results of the election, then all is being lost."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper countered that "the suggestions for savings at Elections Canada were produced by Elections Canada itself" after the last federal election in 2011.

However, the cut -- amounting to a loss of $7.5 million annually -- was not exactly voluntary.

"Elections Canada was asked to follow the spirit and intent of the government's strategic and operational review," agency spokeswoman Diane Benson said, referring to across-the-board spending reductions imposed by the Tories last year.

The agency did choose which programs to cut back.

Both the agency and the government pointed out Elections Canada is entitled to draw unlimited amounts of additional money from general federal revenues for the administration of elections or for the conduct of investigations.

Controversy over its budget was triggered by a report, commissioned by Elections Canada, which concluded the integrity of Canada's electoral process is at "serious risk" due to rampant procedural errors made by polling officials.

The report, released Tuesday, blames overly complex rules and poorly trained polling officers for the fact that errors were made in the majority of the paperwork filled out during the 2011 federal election for electors who needed to prove their eligibility to vote.

An audit of the paperwork found officials made systemic errors in 165,000 cases -- 500 per riding, on average. The errors were serious, of the kind that have led courts to overturn election results in the past, the report said.

While chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand accepted the findings, Elections Canada said the reference to errors in much of the paperwork included minor clerical mistakes such as forgetting to fill in the date, Benson said.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A11

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