Are Conservatives bent on suppressing the vote?
It's an extremely serious charge dealing with our most cherished right, our franchise, and should not be tossed around lightly.
But events in a Toronto courtroom and the House of Commons this week should at least raise concerns. It took the government almost two years to react to allegations of voting irregularities in the 2011 campaign.
It promised legislation by the end of 2012. It didn't act until April 2013, then abruptly pulled back that promised bill.
Ten months later, we finally have legislation, but after this foot-dragging the government now wants to move it through Parliament as if the building were on fire.
Perhaps this is a government that is merely irony-challenged, but no one seems to have noticed that it is counterintuitive to shut down debate on a bill that it claims will "uphold the great principles of democracy that built this country.”
Such unseemly haste merely allows charges of cheating, disenfranchisement and voter suppression to grow from opposition paranoia to something more substantive.
Most of the concerns have been adroitly parried by Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, so, if this bill is not tilted toward Conservatives, he should be comfortable in allowing parliamentary scrutiny for as long as it takes to allay these fears.
One of the biggest complaints from opponents is the end of Elections Canada's role as an advocate, encouraging Canadians to vote. Under this bill, Elections Canada will provide only the nuts-and-bolts on the how and where to vote.
Poilievre is being overly simplistic when he says that declining voting rates federally show that advocacy role has failed, but the opposition is equally disingenuous in claiming this as a type of voter suppression.
Voters have to be motivated to go to the polls, and they have to be motivated by the candidates, not an ad campaign.
No one should seriously believe that abysmal voting turnout among young voters in this country can be turned around by a cool Elections Canada ad.
Conservatives are simply better at getting their vote out.
In 2011, only 15 per cent of the country was over 65, but they voted at an almost 80 per cent rate and they voted overwhelmingly Conservative. In the 18-30 age group, only 20 per cent voted Conservative, but they turned out at a rate of only 35 per cent.
One study, by EKOS, concluded that if voters under 45 had voted at the same rate as those over 45, Jack Layton could have formed a minority NDP government in 2011.
Younger voters will react to peer pressure, exhortations from the lecture theatre or, more likely, inspiration from Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau next year.
None of this, however, explains why the Conservatives are so determined to disenfranchise Canadians living outside this country.
Although a law denying the vote to Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years was first passed more than 20 years ago, it was not enforced until 2007, after Conservatives came to power.
Its constitutionality is being tested at Ontario Superior Court this week.
A parliamentary committee subsequently decided the ban should be lifted, but the government ignored the recommendation and now argues Canadians they deem ineligible would not be allowed to vote even if they travelled to their polling place in person.
The lawyer representing the two Canadians challenging the bill, Shaun O'Brien, argues that in 2014 there are countless ways to keep sufficiently informed to cast a vote in Canadian elections. That was not the case in 1993.
Barely 6,000 eligible Canadians living out of the country cast a ballot in 2011 and there is no evidence that expatriates had been disproportionately voting for opposition parties. Some 2.8 million Canadians live outside this country, but most would have no interest in voting. They need not be stripped of the right.
Americans place no voting limits on their citizens, regardless of how long they have been out of the country. Neither do most European countries, and those that do impose limits are far more generous than Ottawa.
Ottawa argues that after five years prospective voters are no longer sufficiently informed to cast a ballot, but we do not means-test a level of awareness in this country before we allow voters to go to the polls. The numbers may be small, but this is a far more cut-and-dried example of voter suppression than what is transpiring this week in Ottawa.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column is distributed by Torstar Syndication Services. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@nutgraf1