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Reasons for voter ID changes unclear, fuel distrust in elections, say Alberta municipal leaders

Paul McLauchlin: 'When you create these types of legislation, you create democratic uncertainty'
(Black Press Media file photo)

Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Leaders of two organizations representing Alberta’s municipalities say the reasons for changes to voter ID requirements in Bill 20 are unclear and could inadvertently fuel distrust in the election process.

Proposed changes in Bill 20 would remove vouching as a form of voting ID, except in cases of confirming an elector’s physical address if their ID has a different mailing address, such as a P.O. Box. Alberta’s government has said the voter ID changes are intended to ensure confidence in election outcomes by removing elements some Albertans are unsure of, like vouching and electronic tabulators.

Rather than improving trust in Alberta elections, the changes to voter ID and vote counting machines give weight to unfounded beliefs that undermine confidence in the voting system, said Paul McLauchlin, Reeve of Ponoka County and president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA).

“This is a U.S.-style conspiracy theory that has been created. When you create these types of legislation, you create democratic uncertainty,” McLauchlin said.

“Where [Bill 20 amendments] are being sold as creating more certainty in elections, it does the exact opposite. You have actually created the assumption that something nefarious is occurring, and it is not.”

The number of conspiracy theories involving voter fraud and electronic voting machines exploded in the U.S. following the 2020 presidential election, despite the claims being debunked.

McLauchlin said RMA hasn’t received any complaints from members regarding current voter ID requirements and that there is no evidence vouching has impacted the perceived fairness of elections.

“The issue was raised in the [Local Authorities Election Act] review and our input was specific: That the existing vouching features should not be changed at all.”

McLauchlin said he is concerned the ID changes will disenfranchise some eligible voters and put more responsibility on municipalities to provide information to voters in the next election. “Interest in municipal politics is already challenging. We get very low voter turnout. Putting in increased barriers to voting seems only to compound these challenges.”

A spokesperson for Municipal Affairs said the voter ID restrictions in Bill 20 are meant “to ensure that Albertans have full confidence that only eligible voters are casting a ballot.” Alberta has recorded seven cases of voter fraud, with a total of five illegal votes being cast, since 2013: three people who voted twice, and two voters who weren't eligible.

In 2021, the Select Special Democratic Accountability Committee considered the issue of vouching in its review of Alberta's Election Act and Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act. In the final report delivered to the Alberta Legislature the committee wrote that "vouching is key to ensuring that every Albertan has the opportunity to vote, not just those individuals who have the ability and means to obtain formal identification."

Wetaskiwin Mayor and Alberta Municipalities (ABmunis) president Tyler Gandam said it is unclear what problems the province is trying to solve with the legislation.

“It feels like they are picking and choosing different things to make things a little bit more difficult for municipalities. And I'm trying to figure out why,” Gandam said.

Gandam said there was no consultation with ABmunis in the development of Bill 20, and there has been limited communication with the province since it was introduced.

“We're trying to be partners with the province. We do represent 265 municipalities from across the province. And I think we have a pretty good understanding of the impacts that Bill 20, and other legislation that they're going to bring forward, will have, and how we can make it better so that it is working in the best interest of everybody, all Albertans, not just what the province thinks should happen.”

Gandam also questioned the purpose of the province conducting a public survey on changes to the LAEA if the responses weren’t reflected in policy decisions. 

Only 23 per cent of respondents to the government of Alberta survey supported the introduction of political parties at the municipal level, and 30 per cent felt vouching or attestation should be removed. Respondents who said vouching should be eliminated “felt it was essential in stopping election fraud,” according to the government of Alberta engagement summary.

'Red meat' for UCP base

University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley said contentious legislation like the Provincial Priorities Act, which would prevent municipalities and universities from entering into funding agreements with the federal government without provincial approval, and Bill 20 are less about classic policy decisions than shoring up support within the UCP base.

“When their base starts to realize they can't deliver on some of their big policy initiatives”  like the promised personal income tax cuts “then they have to throw them something. And they seem to be less about classic public policy now than throwing them red meat that has to do with the democratic foundations of society, and it's becoming more and more outlandish,” Wesley said.

Wesley says the removal of vouching in elections will impact the segments of our society that are already the most marginalized. These policy decisions also follow the pattern observed in many populist parties in Europe or the U.S. which have come to power campaigning against previous governments, he said.

“They realize they can't have the government be the enemy anymore. So, they pick their own citizens that are going to be the enemy. In the case of voter ID, they pick people that don't typically have identification. They're an easy target,” he said.

“Because they no longer have the government that is in power to take on, they have to go after groups within their own society. It’s the populist playbook.”