Voter ID laws in Canada vs America

1965 President Johnson signed Voting Rights Act

How do voter ID laws and election fraud debates compare in Canadian and US politics?

As America’s Democrats try to pin down whether voter suppression, Russian hackers, fake news, or “the antiquated mechanism” of the Electoral College is responsible for the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, Canada continues to publicly muse about reforming its own electoral process, albeit with fewer doomsayers. To ID or not to ID has long divided US party lines. In contrast, Canada has had relatively strict voter ID requirements for the past ten years.

At his final press conference, President Obama declared voter ID legislation a remnant of Jim Crow, the racist laws that kept their toehold in the Southern United States from the 1800s to the 1960s. The former president also claimed that the US was “the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote.” In fact, most “advanced democracies” require some kind of identification to vote in national elections with the exception of England (but that could also change soon).

It’s no secret that Democrats get more votes from minorities than their Republican counterparts. Minority voters are also disproportionally affected by voter ID laws. (An estimated 25% of voting-age African Americans do not possess a government-issued photo ID.) This is one reason that the issue is so politically charged, with Democrats often slamming voter ID laws as voter suppression tactics by their Republican rivals.

Conversely, Republicans are the most likely defenders of ID laws in the States and argue that they are necessary measures to protect against voter fraud. Yet, investigations have shown that US election fraud is minimal, and more importantly, would likely still occur under the strictest voter ID regimes, begging the question as to the purpose of voter identification laws.

“Election fraud happens. But ID laws are not aimed at the fraud you’ll actually hear about,” law professor Justin Levitt to the Washington Post. Levitt has dedicated much of his career to studying US election practices and claims to have found only 31 substantiated cases of election fraud in the US.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the US voter ID debate is that the majority—80%—of Americans support ID laws, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, as do the majority of non-white respondents. (Of course, irritating telephone surveys have always come with their own set of methodological issues that still, ahem, ring true today.)

Voter ID and the law in the United States

As the nation’s most outspoken civil liberties defender, the ACLU condemns voter ID legislation as an attempt to “deprive many voters of their right to vote, reduce participation, and stand in direct opposition to our country’s trend of including more Americans in the democratic process.”

A total of 32 states had voter ID laws that were in effect for the 2016 election, meaning that voters had to show some form of identification in order to cast their ballot. But despite the outrage that many Democrats expressed over voter ID laws leading up to the elections, the stricter ID requirements were unlikely responsible for their nightmare-come-true that is the country’s 45th presidency.

During the months leading up to the Nov 8 election, federal courts struck down voter ID laws in four states. The courts’ decisions mostly relied on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits states and local governments from passing any law that discriminates against racial and language minorities.

The Voting Rights Act has undergone a series of amendments and alterations over the last four decades, with some critics arguing that it was not just altered but “gutted” in 2013 by the Supreme Court:

In the 2013 case Shelby County v Holder, the court found that a key provision of the Act was unconstitutional. It required certain states (and some individual cities and counties) that were considered discriminatory in the past (e.g., because less than half their eligible population was registered to vote or they had previously used literacy tests) to secure pre-approval from the federal government before any new voting law could go into effect. This “preclearance” was unconstitutional, according to the majority opinion, because it was based on 40-year-old data and undermined states’ sovereignty.

It was not the first time the US Supreme Court cast their ballot on the issue of voter ID laws. In 2008, the court found that Indiana’s voter ID law, which required voters sans ID to either obtain an ID or go to a “designated government office” to sign a statement saying that they could not afford an ID within 10 days after casting their ballot, did not violate voters’ constitutional rights. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the following in his opinion:

“The severity of the somewhat heavier burden that may be placed on a limited number of persons—e.g., elderly persons born out-of-state, who may have difficulty obtaining a birth certificate—is mitigated by the fact that eligible voters without photo identification may cast provisional ballots that will be counted if they execute the required affidavit at the circuit court clerk’s office.”

It’s worth noting that the plaintiffs failed to produce any witness who would be unable to meet the law’s allegedly burdensome requirements. Similarly, the defendants, the State of Indiana, did not produce evidence of election fraud.

At this point, Canadians might be wondering how voters in the non-ID-ing states exercise their democratic rights beyond, say, rocking up to the polls ready to pinky swear they are indeed Joe Schmoe, Jr, before flashing their unique birthmark as backup credentials.

States without voter ID requirements will often require other types of verification like checking voters’ signatures or requesting personal info (though “What is the name of your favorite pet?” is unlikely to grant you access to the voting booth). Some states may also require you to sign an affidavit attesting to your identity, meaning you’d be held criminally liable for lying about it.

Voter ID and voter suppression tactics in Canada

Simply providing your John Hancock won’t fly in Canada. Canadian citizens who wish to vote in a federal election must show a government-issued photo ID or two forms of identification with your current address, such as a utility bill and firearms licence, or a subway pass and parolee card, or even a library card and the label on your bottle of prescription Viagra, as long as one of them contains your address. The list of acceptable ID includes nearly 50 documents.

Before the Harper regime, Canadians registered to vote could also use the voter information cards that they receive in the mail, which tell them when and where to vote. In addition to this change, the 2014 Fair Elections Bill also tried to remove the vouching option, which allowed individuals with proper identification to vouch for another voter without it.

Voters can still use the vouching option, as long as they also have two pieces of ID with their name on it and both the voucher and vouchee sign an oath. The vouching method accounted for over 100,000 votes in 2011.

The irony of the Conservatives’ ostensible effort to crackdown on election fraud is that one of Canada’s highest profile election fraud scandals occurred on their watch, during Harper’s successful 2011 election bid, by individuals who had access to his party’s database. Impersonating Elections Canada, the fraudsters made automatic and live calls to individuals registered to the opposing parties and erroneously told them that their polling stations had moved. (Though the only proven Conservative Party involvement was perpetrated in part by an individual using the subtle pseudonym “Pierre Poutine.”)

Elections Canada voting requirements

Despite the relative acceptance of ID requirements in Canada, critics argue that they disenfranchise certain groups of people, including the homeless and native populations, but they’ve had minimal success in the court system.

Although convicted felons are eligible to vote in Canada, the government has limited expats’ voting since the ‘90s. Currently, Canadian expats who’ve lived outside the country for more than five years are ineligible to vote.

A new bill proposed by the current Liberal government attempts to restore voting eligibility to expats and the use of voter information cards as an acceptable form of ID.

Like something out of a (much) lamer version of Minority Report, Bill C-33 could also create a National Register of Future Electors to pre-register voters between the ages of 14 and 17. This would be in addition to Canada’s National Register of Electors, a database that contains the name, address, gender, and date of birth of eligible voters and is continually updated with data from other agencies.

The bill includes several other provisions to “break down unnecessary barriers to voting while enhancing the efficiency and the integrity of our elections,” according to Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef.

What’s clear is that as Canada tries to loosen voter ID requirements under its current administration, the US is looking to tighten them. As the Trump administration continues to cry voter fraud, and states attempt to tighten ID requirements, federal courts are perhaps the anti-ID camp’s last defense against widespread voter identification requirements. (Although that window may be somewhat barred given the president’s plans for supreme court nominees.)

Also published on Medium.

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