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Alberta voter ID restrictions threat to 'core democratic values': political scientist

An Edmonton Elections sign can be seen in this undated file photo. (CTV News Edmonton) An Edmonton Elections sign can be seen in this undated file photo. (CTV News Edmonton)

Proposed voter ID restrictions will not only stop many Albertans from participating in local elections, but taken in the context of other "democratically questionable moves in Bill 20 and Bill 18" it is a sign of growing threats to "core democratic values" in the province, says University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley.

Alberta's election guidelines allow voters who don't have identification to be vouched for by someone in the same voting area who has approved ID and signs a declaration stating they personally know the other voter and can verify their eligibility and address.

Changes to the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA) introduced in Bill 20 would prohibit the use of vouching in municipal elections except to verify an address, such as cases where a driver's license lists a post office box instead of a home address.

Wesley said the move is concerning from a democratic inclusiveness standpoint, because the people who don't have voter ID are usually the most marginalized in our community.

"For generations, there's been a spirit in Alberta political culture that we want as many people and as many different types of people voting in elections. That changes with Bill 20 in that the government has chosen to take a page out of the MAGA Republican playbook to restrict the types of people that can cast ballots in local elections," Wesley said.

Though there have been a number of hotly contested ridings in recent elections where a few votes could sway the outcome, the elimination of vouching "comes down to the question of not the number of people that are voting in elections, but the type of people that we want voting on elections," he said.

"We know that these measures will disadvantage a number of Indigenous communities, and in particular Black communities," Wesley said.

People from these communities might not have access to or need for a driver's license, may not trust the state because of Canada's colonial past and present, or otherwise be less likely to have voter ID, he said.

"They might look at this as not necessarily a physical barrier to them participating, but just another example of how they're not welcome in the system."

When the elimination of vouching as a form of voter ID was first floated as part of a Government of Alberta online survey in November, political scientists and advocates also expressed concern that the unhoused would be blocked from voting.

In 2014, the Harper government, through then-Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre, proposed removing vouching in federal elections. Canada's chief electoral officer said the move would impact over 100,000 people, like seniors, students, and mostly, Indigenous people living on reserve, and the constitutionality of the restriction was challenged.

Fears of voter fraud unfounded

"Alberta’s government is removing the ability for people to vouch for an elector’s identity and only permitting vouching for an elector’s address. We are doing this to ensure that Albertans have full confidence that only eligible voters are casting a ballot," Heather Jenkins, press secretary to the Minister of Municipal Affairs, said in an e-mail.

Jenkins did not provide any examples of cases where someone had who was ineligible to vote had fraudulently cast a ballot in a municipal election using vouching.

Bill 20 also prohibits the use of electronic vote counting machines. Similarly, Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver said the integrity of the machines themselves has not been called into question, but there are a number of Albertans who don't have faith in the tabulators, and this belief may undermine trust in election outcomes.

"The most important point is the morning after the morning after an election, when hopefully the smoke is all cleared and all votes have been counted. And the winners have been announced that members of the public believe that those that were called the winners, were the winners legitimately," McIver said at a news event on April 25.

A Government of Alberta public engagement survey on LAEA changes conducted in late 2023. Results show 46 per cent of respondents did not support removing vouching or attestation in Alberta local elections and eight per cent said they had participated in vouching themselves.

"Written responses indicated it was seen as important to allow all Albertans the ability to vote. All written submissions indicated support for maintaining the ability for an elector to attest for another elector," the LAEA engagement summary states.

Thirty per cent of respondents agreed that vouching should be removed, and felt it was necessary to stop "election fraud."

Politics of vengeance

"There's no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in Alberta, and there's no evidence that voter voter mid voting machines are a problem either," Wesley said.

"This is a case of a small group of people on the fringes of Alberta politics, having the ear of the premier and coming up with solutions to problems that don't exist based on conspiracies that they've read in in far right corners of the internet," Wesley said.

In a post on the social media platform Telegram on April 25, Take Back Alberta head David Parker celebrated the outlawing of vote counting machines through Bill 20: "Since Phase One, Take Back Alberta has been calling for the end of electronic tabulators in counting our votes. Today, the UCP tabled legislation to remove tabulators."

Alberta Municipalities President and Wetaskiwin Mayor Tyler Gandam said during a press conference that none of the 265 municipalities represented by ABmunis have reported problems with vote tabulators, and Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has said switching to hand counting would cost local taxpayers millions.

Wesley said the voter ID restrictions, Bill 20 provisions allowing provincial cabinet to remove elected councillors, or proposed legislation requiring provincial approval for any federal funding deal for municipalities or universities might be forgiven as bad policy decisions if they were isolated incidents.

"That's not what this is. It's a clear pattern. And it's an accelerating one," he said. "These are all part of the same pattern for this government, dating back to 2019 and even before that.

"They simply want their type of people participating, people that like them, the people that support them to be participating in politics, and they don't want anybody else to.

"It's a politics, quite frankly, motivated by vengeance. And one that really has no place in a liberal democracy like Alberta."