Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Elections Canada cops out

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Elections Canada is supposed to be the guardian of free and fair democratic elections, but it undermined its vital role with a recent decision on a complaint that suggested non-Canadians were wrongly interfering in last year's federal election.

The unidentified complainant said the president of Front Porch Technologies, an American voter-contact firm with Republican ties, was seen working in the campaign office of Conservative Julian Fantino during the election. The same person also knocked on doors for another Conservative MP.

The complainant said the conduct was a violation of Sec. 331 of the Canada Elections Act, which prohibits non-Canadians from doing anything to "induce electors to vote or refrain from voting" for a particular candidate.

Elections Canada refused to investigate because there was no evidence a voter "was actually induced or affected in their voting behaviour due to the activity complained of."

This was a ridiculous and even perverse interpretation of the law. Ordinary language and simple logic suggest merely attempting to violate the law is an offence, regardless whether the illegal behaviour achieved its intended purpose.

The ruling has also called into question several other sections of the legislation that prohibit actions that "induce" or "compel" voters to cast their ballots a certain way or not at all.

It could well be the case that Front Porch Technologies did not violate the law -- Canadian political parties are entitled to hire foreign companies -- but if the problem is that the law is too vague, then Elections Canada should have asked Parliament or the courts for guidance, rather than issuing a ridiculous interpretation of the law.

Sec. 331 is so vague that even filmmaker Michael Moore was accused of violating it when he urged Canadians not to vote Conservative during a visit to Toronto in 2004. It clearly was not intended to allow the arrest of foreign celebrities who make a controversial comment while passing through the country.

Prohibitions on foreign involvement in Canadian democracy should be there to prevent elections from being hijacked and not to restrict the legitimate use of outside paid experts, which most countries allow.

Parliament legitimately can prohibit foreign interests from using their financial means to influence Canadian elections. It needs to rewrite the relevant sections of the act to ensure Elections Canada does not need to manipulate the English language to avoid making a decision.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2012 A10

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