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Misinformation circulating online stokes fears of voter fraud ahead of federal election

CBC with Melanee Thomas 30 August 2019

 

When Tasha Stokdijk received four voter registration letters in the mail last April, she was confused. The envelopes were addressed to international high school students she had hosted over the years, all of whom had been underage and weren’t Canadian citizens. 

“All four of the students were 1) No longer in Canada and 2) Only here for a very short time,” said Stokdijk, a social media marketer in Truro, N.S. “I was pretty surprised.” 

But Stokdijk was just as surprised to learn that a photo of the envelopes she shared on Facebook has been circulating online, along with claims it was evidence that non-citizens could be casting ballots this fall. 

It turns out there’s a simple explanation for the letters, but the confusion is just one example of misinformation circulating online that’s stoking fears around voter fraud as Canadians head closer to the federal election. 

The letters sent to Stokdijk’s international students were from Elections Nova Scotia, not Elections Canada. In an email to CBC News, the provincial agency explained that the letters are sent to every student in Nova Scotia who has recently turned 18, and encourages them to register to vote. 

“The data used to identify new 18-year-olds comes from the province’s high schools, but doesn’t indicate whether students are Canadian citizens,” wrote Naomi Shelton, director of policy and communications for Elections Nova Scotia. 

The letters themselves cannot be used to vote, and only Canadian citizens can register to vote. 

That context was absent from multiple social media posts created from a screenshot of Stokdijk’s original post. One of those posts was shared on Facebook over 1,000 times, with many users calling it evidence of “rigging the election.” 

Misinformation about what kind of identification can be used to vote has been spreading on social media over the last few months. Some of the confusion stems from changes that the government made to voter requirements last year

One of those changes was to adopt voter information cards as a form of identification. Many posts online conflate voter information cards with voter registration cards. Voter information cards are sent to registered voters ahead of the election and can be used as identification at the polls. Voter registration cards prompt potential voters to register, but aren’t a form of identification. 

The posts also claim that a voter information card alone would be enough for someone to vote, but in fact it has to be presented with another piece of identification. These cards were also previously valid forms of identification for voting, but were removed when the Harper government introduced the Fair Elections Act. 

“One of the things that is confusing is that what we’re really doing is reverting back to the old rules,” said Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. 

Another change causing confusion online is the decision to remove limits on Canadians living abroad from voting. Previously, Canadians living outside the country for five or more years were no longer eligible to vote. That restriction has now been lifted, meaning an estimated 2.8 million Canadian citizens living outside the country are now able to vote. 

But social media posts are causing confusion, leading many users to believe the change allows non-citizens to vote. 

Take, for example, the comments on a Facebook post sharing a Toronto Sun column. The post states that “Bill C-76 allows more than 2 million non resident Canadians to vote in 2019,” but the comments make it clear many followers misunderstood the change to mean non-citizens can vote. 

“Is there another country in the world that allows non citizens to vote?” reads the top comment on the post. “Have our politicians lost their minds? I am beginning to doubt Canada can survive another 4 years of Justin Trudeau and his insane ideas. Let’s hope and pray he is gone soon.”

Only Canadian citizens may vote in Canadian elections. 

Thomas said the choice of language in the Facebook posts, such as saying “non-resident” instead of “expat,” is likely deliberate and intended to cause confusion. 

“Somebody has deliberately and carefully chosen that language,” she said. “I look at this, and I think, ‘How much of this is about politicizing immigration and multiculturalism in a negative way?'”

Bill C-76 uses the term “non-resident electors,” as does Elections Canada in some of its online material. Elections Canada also sometimes refers to non-residents as “Canadians living abroad,” in its online communication. 

Thomas said this kind of misinformation primes voters to claim the election is illegitimate if they don’t get their desired outcome. 

“It’s really concerning in a democracy,” she said. 

Melanee Thomas is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.