‘Fair Elections Act’ changes to voter ID policies could disenfranchise up to 120,000 voters

The unveiling of the sort-of-Orwellian-named Fair Elections Act by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre this morning is attracting attention among journalists and commentators for its apparent lack of consultation with Elections Canada and pieces like changes to campaign spending limits that were selectively left out of the press conference by the Minister, but equally concerning is a seemingly small change to voter ID laws at the ballot box.

The Fair Elections Act, as announced today, proposes to eliminate a policy in place that allowed an individual to vote without the possessing one of the official pieces of ID by having another individual, whom they know, ‘vouch’ for their identity and residence. The current policy that allows ‘vouching’ makes Canada in the same class as the most permissive nations in terms of election rules.  (note: this is a good thing in a democracy with steadily falling voter turnout).

It may seem reasonable to assume that all Canadians possess a piece of valid ID for the purposes of voting, but we know this is not the case (pdf).  Low-income voters are much less likely to have a driver’s licence or other valid piece of ID.   Students may have a driver’s licence but lack the documentation of their residence since  they are much more likely to move frequently.  For example, a survey at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia found that 30% of students who attempted to vote were denied.

There is extensive literature to back up arguments that strict voter ID laws affect voter turnout among certain groups of electors.  Prof. Hershey, writing in a U.S. context–which we know has some pretty dreadful voter ID laws that are marketed as fraud prevention, but critics agree are clever Republican attempts to suppress minority voters–tells us (pdf):

“The immense literature on the costs of voting has shown that costs ranging from the registration requirement to strict voter-ID laws do reduce voter turnout to some degree and that the impact seems to fall disproportionately on the least educated and the least wealthy.” (90)

So that leads to the question: is voter fraud by vouching a big problem in Canada?

Minister Poilievre cites a study commissioned by Elections Canada (pdf), written by Harry Neufeld, which claims that the “irregularities” for vouching voting was around 25%.  Yet when one looks at the report, Neufeld is using the term “irregularities” in reference to electoral workers ‘irregularly’ applying policy, not confirmed cases of voter fraud by vouching.

Minister Poilievre is thus knowingly invoking a term that sounds a lot worse to a causal reader than the author of the report is intending in that context.  To be clear: Neufeld is saying that in 25% of cases of ‘vouching’ voting, electoral workers ‘irregularly’ applied the policy (to require a registered voter in the riding to vouch for the voter without ID), NOT that 25% of vouching voters were found to be fraudulent! This is obviously an important distinction.

Elections Canada confirms (pdf) that about 120, 000 voters used vouching procedures in the last election.   This policy change would thus affect a sizeable number of voters, and studies demonstrate that these voters are disproportionately young, poor and less educated–precisely the groups of Canadians with lowest voter turnout rates already.   Of course systems to prevent fraud in the electoral system are essential to legitimate elections, but one worries about political motivations when a rule change so disproportionately affects a particular segment of electors.


e-petitions in the House of Commons

Yesterday, on a day with a lot of talk about ‘democratic reform’ of our federal government institutions, one event received much less attention and is arguably much more substantive to improving our democracy than the other one:

The one I’m talking about was a vote on a motion in the House of Commons that would ask the Standing Committee on Procedure and House affairs to recommend procedural changes so as to allow e-petitions from citizens to trigger debates in the House of Commons (if they meet a number of conditions).

Such a reform is incremental in a sense, but also potentially dramatic. It is incremental in that it builds on current procedures for paper petitions (which if it meets some conditions must get a ‘response’ from the government).   But what is really new (and important) is that if there is substantial citizen support (50,000) behind the e-petition and at least 5 MPs are willing to sponsor it, it will force a debate in the House of Commons.

This motion was the brainchild of Kennedy Stewart, a political science professor-turned MP, elected in 2011 , though long-interested in democratic reform (disclosure: he taught me about 7 years ago).  It was endorsed by both Ed Broadbent and Preston Manning, signalling cross-spectrum support.

The ‘problem’ this reform is looking to solve is that for many Canadians, the issues they care about are often not debated with any depth in the House of Commons, the principal institution of our democracy.  Issues brought into debate via the e-petitions would not be subject to a vote, and thus is not a mechanism to pass motions or bills.  Rather, it is a way for Canadians to bring issues on to the House of Commons agenda, provided they have a base of support and MPs willing to sponsor it.  Similar e-petition frameworks exist in the UK, Germany and Quebec.

The motion to study e-petitions passed the House of Commons last night (Jan 29, 2014) by a razor-thin margin: 142-140.  It obtained support from members of all parties, with all Liberals, New Democrats, Bloc Quebecois and Greens who were present voting YES, and 8 Conservative MPs (including democratic reform champion Michael Chong).

Some commentators are wary of this motion in particular and e-petitions more generally, skeptical that they will result in substantive engagement and convinced that they will attract frivolous and satirical e-petitions that will take up scarce House of Commons time. The experience in other countries does not really lend evidence to this concern and we can reasonably expect MPs, 5 of whom must sponsor the e-petition, would be wise enough not to bring forward joke petitions.

Anyway, on a day in which we were all consumed by a somewhat bizarre reform effort in the Senate, a much more important development occurred in the House–one that could better connect Canadians to their elected institution of the federal government (you know, the one that matters) and make our MPs much more responsive to the issues citizens care about.

Extreme Weather Response for Homeless in Toronto and Vancouver

For those of us in Toronto, this winter has been simply DREADFUL, with long periods of very cold temperatures and high winds, such that I make considerable effort to avoid exposure to the outdoors, worried that this will happen to me:


But obviously not everyone can hide out in their apartments until MARCH, particularly the homeless population.

If you are cold just walking a few blocks to get milk at the store, surely you can imagine the experience of a homeless person without sanctuary–especially since they are not often not welcome in private businesses for long.

You might think this is not a significant problem since extreme cold weather response policies are in place to provide warming centres and temporary emergency shelter spaces during periods of extreme cold weather that threatens the health and safety of homeless individuals.

Yet deaths on the streets of Toronto continue to add up: over 700 names are on the Toronto Homeless Memorial since they started counting in 1986.  There were 33 new names added to that list in the last 12 months.

BUT you might be surprised by the the criteria to issue an extreme cold weather alert in Torontowhen Environment Canada predicts an overnight temperature of -15 degrees  (!!!) Celsius or lower without wind chill for Toronto, or issues a wind chill warning for outdoor activity, and/or predicts extreme weather conditions, such as a blizzard, ice storm or sudden drops in temperature.    

Yesterday, the City closed the Metro Hall warming centre at 11am on Friday (Jan 24), despite sustained extreme cold and high winds that were predicted and in fact returned by 5pm.  The City bureaucrats who determine whether to execute an extreme cold weather alert, and thus activate the extra services and shelter spaces to provide sanctuary to homeless population, thus appear to be violating their own policies and generating great risk to the street population.

It is thus worth considering how things work in this regard in other Canadian cities.  Well, you might not think that Vancouver has much need for an extreme cold weather alert system, but they do have one and it is rather distinct from Toronto’s criteria and system.

The criteria for calling an extreme weather alert in Vancouver include: temperatures near 0 degrees celsius with rainfall that makes it difficult or impossible for homeless people to remain dry and/or freezing rain, snow accumulation, sustained high winds; or just temperatures at or below -2 degrees celsius.

In the Metro Vancouver area, the extreme weather alerts are decided and executed NOT by local government bureaucrats, but by service providers in the community based on pre-established policies (pdf). These are people who are on the ground, interacting with the homeless population and thus best able to determine how the conditions are affecting their health and well-being.

You might think be thinking that imposing Vancouver’s standards of ‘cold’ in a Toronto context would be silly because nearly every day from November to March is below 0 degrees celsius!

But more silly is pretending that any of us would withstand more than a few hours outside, let alone whole days and evenings, even at temperatures just below zero.

never frozen


SO Toronto bureaucrats: time to review whether -15 degrees celsius is an appropriate temperature to issue an alert (which has not be reviewed since 1996-pdf) AND in the meantime, execute the policies as written.  The lives of people are at stake.

Is equitable road pricing possible? A ‘mobility rights’ framework for private car and transit use

Over the years I have become convinced that increased use of road pricing and tolls are perhaps the most effective way to pay for infrastructure upgrades, reduce traffic and GHG emissions, and establish more equity across the city-suburban divide.

But road tolls are often a very difficult sale in the political realm.

For example, the toll on new Port Mann bridge in Greater Vancouver has been controversial since it was proposed, and recent surveys suggest it remains unpopular with drivers, particularly in the Fraser Valley.  But the toll is changing behaviour, as economists would of course predict.  34% of those surveyed in the Fraser Valley claim they drive over the bridge less often as a result of the toll charge, thus reducing traffic and (potentially) emissions.

Road pricing is popular among economists, but tends to be toxic among citizens and politicians since it involves taking away or taxing something that was previously freely available.  But congestion and crumbling road and transit infrastructure suggests that the ‘free’ model just externalizes the costs and is terribly inefficient.

My previous hang-ups associated with road pricing was with respect to the equity impacts.  Most importantly along the lines of ability to pay, but also equity along geographical lines.  But there are answers to the equity problem in the academic literature:

-Actually, there is no equity problem: the argument is that the most frequent drivers are not poor, so road pricing is actually a progressive tax (Santos and Rojey, 2004). Even if mostly true (which is disputed), this does not deal with geographical inequities, however.

-A subsidy to poorer drivers: use means-testing to have differential pricing depending on income.   The concern with this would be the political toxicity and the heavy administration associated with this policy.

The most interesting policy framework to me is a much more comprehensive–and, WARNING, will sound strange–approach:

-A ‘free’ ration of trips to all (conceptualized as ‘mobility rights’):  all residents get X amount of FREE travel in the relevant jurisdiction (economists suggest 50-70% of current use patterns) applied to BOTH private car driving AND public transportation, beyond which payment is required (Viegas, 2001).  Non-residents would pay for both from the outset.

This option is appealing because it would:

-limit the harm to the poor who need to travel; in fact, it would introduce a major subsidy to transit users

-is probably more politically acceptable than allocating discounts to particular social groups

-would undoubtedly reduce congestion on major highways

-links private car and transit use to same standard, which are currently separate debates, resulting in real and perceived inequities

Am I crazy, or does this make sense?

So this is actually happening…In Toronto, we are either taxpayers or sponges, but definitely not citizens

In a short email response for the Toronto Sun regarding federal aid for the Toronto ice-storm response, in every reference to the residents of Toronto, presumptive candidate Olivia Chow uses the term ‘taxpayers’, matching the language of all other Mayoral candidates.

This is standard discourse for political actors with a limited view of government, but is surprising to see from the leading candidate of ‘the left’ in the race to be Toronto’s Mayor.

It may seem a bit academic to attach much significance to this shift in language–and it is–but it is the latest example of what scholars call the ‘neoliberalization of citizenship’.  The ‘citizen as taxpayer’ divides up the universal in a broader ‘citizenship’ discourse, separating out a ‘mainstream’ taxpaying individuals from ‘others’ who are the beneficiaries of services.

It divides citizens up into categories of those who ‘contribute’ and those who ‘take’, undermining the argument for a redistributive role for government based on a universal and collective definition of citizenship, and therefore the raison d’être of a candidacy like that of Chow’s.

We can understand the need, sometimes, to play in the arena set by your opponents in the pursuit of a larger goal (getting elected!), but when the social justice-oriented candidate buys into this exclusionary discourse before the campaign begins, it seems like the campaign might already be lost.  

BCMA rebranded as “Doctors of BC” in attempt to sound less like lobby group

Was tipped off by a physician friend in BC of a subtle, but interesting, shift in the public relations strategy of the BC Medical Association, the chief lobbying group for physicians in the province.

The memo is restricted to members, but I have connections far and wide , as you’ll soon discover.  <—-not true

Anyway, rather than use the name BCMA, they will be branding themselves as “Doctors of BC” in the media, clearly in an attempt to make them sound a lot less like an organized interest group and more like the people we trust more than any other profession.

Looks like the new BCMA Doctors of BC president has been reading the interest group branding literature.

Toronto 2024 — Research Round-up on costs and benefits of staging the Olympics

The debate over Toronto launching another bid to host a summer Olympic Games is back,  this time with proponents aiming for the 2024 Games.

Examining the costs and benefits of staging the Olympic Games is THE CLASSIC masters-level thesis of public policy students, precisely because the multiple and potentially uneven distributive effects of hosting the Olympics that need to be conceptualized and measured. Seriously, enough of these types of theses have been done, young masters student. Stop now.

But each Host and bid is unique, with some hosts like London (2012) receiving more positive praise for balancing the costs and benefits, whereas the upcoming Sochi (2014) already declared by many commentators to be a financial and equity disaster.

That said, one element that always seems to be true is how the sticker price for hosting the Olympic bid is, how do you say, on the LOW END of the estimate of the final burden on taxpayers.  Governments are also clever by placing Olympic infrastructure costs in public works budgets rather than in official Olympic budgets, concealing the true cost of hosting the Games from citizens as they prepare and execute bids.

There has been enough policy and economic research conducted on the costs and benefits of hosting the Games to fill an Olympic stadium, but I provide just a taste below (most behind scholarly pay-walls, sorry) as demonstrative of the varied conclusions in the literature.


Barlcay (2009) claims that consultant studies that support Olympic bids “overstate benefits, understate costs, and misuse multipliers” and thus it is difficult to explain in economic terms the intense competition among countries to host the Games.

Barclay, Jonathan. “Predicting the costs and benefits of mega-sporting events: misjudgement of Olympic proportions?” Economic affairs 29.2 (2009): 62-66.

Richard Cashman (2002) suggests that benefits and costs are, perhaps as expected, dependent on precisely how the Olympic bid is executed, implying that it is at least possible that benefits can be more evenly distributed and costs minimized if designed with equity in mind.

Lenskyyj (2002) argues that Olympic “legacy benefits accrue to the already privileged sectors of the population’ while the disadvantaged bear a disproportionate share of the burden” (131).

Lenskyj, Helen Jefferson (2002): The best Olympics ever? social impacts of Sydney 2000. Albany : SUNY Press.

Rose and Spiegel (2009) find an ‘Olympic Effect’ in increased trade of 30% by countries which have hosted an Olympic Games, but also find that the same size effect exists for those countries that BID for the Games, but were unsuccessful.  The effect is the signal that these countries send to the world rather than the act of actually holding the mega event.

Rose, Andrew K., and Mark M. Spiegel. “The olympic effect*.” The Economic Journal 121.553 (2011): 652-677.


So should Toronto bid for the 2024 Olympic Summer Games?