A new blog series?

Over dinner this week, I was revealed as one of those weirdos who actually read the fine print. Yep, once in a while—embarrassingly often—I’ll actually dig right into those long documents that come with the health insurance, the credit card offer, or the website signup.

Forced arbitration clause in Amex Premier Rewards Gold cardmember agreement.
When was the last time you actually read something like this?

Why? Because the purpose of these “Terms and Conditions,” or “Cardmember Agreements,” or whatever else they’re calling these lengthy, prewritten, one-sided contracts, is to modify default legal rules/rights in such a way that benefits the parties that wrote them. So, even if I don’t have any practical choice in whether or not to use Facebook, even if I can’t really negotiate with American Express and rewrite the terms of the extended warranty, at the very least it’s useful to know what my rights are—and what hidden benefits there might be that most people don’t know about.

So a friend thought it might be fun if I just occasionally write about these things. Perhaps a sort of Bad Terms & Conditions section on my blog, or … Digging through the Fine Print

Still working on the name.

I’ll try not to fall into the bad habit of labelling companies “fascists” or something similarly colourful,1 which other blogs highlighting these issues inevitably find themselves doing. (I mean, literally every company that deserves any business does it, so what’s a conscientious consumer to do?) For what it’s worth, Consumerist already writes about this and does a pretty good job of it.

Continue reading A new blog series?

Another startup blatantly steals university trademarks

A friend directed my attention to a startup-y website selling “cheap smartphone [insurance] coverage” for “as little as $3 a month”. Right at the top of the Penn-branded subdomain (penn.getcovered.co) was an iPhone mockup showing the Penn shield:

GetCovered ripping off Penn seal

highly doubt they went through all the trouble of actually licensing the trademark from the university. Penn’s policy on use of its logos by external entities provides (emphasis added):

Outside sponsors of University programs or activities often seek to use University names or insignia in promotional or advertising materials. While the University is pleased to recognize the contributions of sponsors, such recognition must not suggest University endorsement of the sponsor’s activities. Therefore, University names or insignia may not be used in connection with any outside entity’s name or logo without prior approval of the Secretary of the University. In general, the Secretary will approve uses which recognize or acknowledge the sponsor’s contribution to the University program or activity. Uses which, in the Secretary’s judgment, may suggest University endorsement or approval of the sponsor’s goods or services will not be permitted.

The big issue, of course, is the risk of confusion — by consumers, etc — who might think that the service is sponsored or endorsed by the university. There would be a pretty good prima facie case for trademark infringement, especially since the registrant behind the domain name appears to be a Stanford grad with no connection to Penn.

But to top it all off, the site seems to be lying on its face. The Penn page includes a quote from a “Leah B, Philadelphia, PA”:

Leah B, Philadelphia, PA quote

but the exact same quote is used on the non-Penn-branded homepage of GetCovered, this time from “Leah B, Washington, DC”!

Leah B, Washington, DC quote

As an alum, I certainly don’t want the university’s shield to be used in connection with this company. What they’re doing is strangely reminiscent of the Campus Backup service that OCM was marketing a few years ago — which shut down after my blog post overtook their site in search engines.

Update (2015-11-02): a quick Google search of the opening sentence of the quote directed me to the source — a 2012 comment on a Gawker post by a Gawker contributor, no obvious connection to GetCovered.

Renewing date of departure by physical presence in Canada

TL;DR many Canadians in the US have more ways to vote, even under the 5-year limit, than previously thought.

A week ago, I mailed in my special ballot to Elections Canada. I can now say I’ve voted in the 2015 Canadian federal election!

There’s been a lot of discussion among Canadians at HLS, and folks in the Harvard Graduate Student Canadian Club, about the logistics of voting in this election. Notably, while most of them don’t have to deal with having a green card (as I do), some grad students may question how the 5-year limit applies to them.

Letters from Elections Canada, sent to two students who emailed them to inquire about logistics, support two conclusions.

1. Voting physically in Canada still possible

Voters who have been living abroad for 5 consecutive years or more and who are not exempt from the 5 year limit may vote in person at the advance polling station or the regular polling station corresponding to an address for which they have a proof of address (they cannot vote by special ballot).
– Elections Canada, in response to Peter W1

The provisions of the Canada Elections Act that prohibit registering to vote by mail from abroad after five years only apply to the special ballot. If you are a Canadian who has been a nonresident for more than five years, apparently you can still vote in person. (Canadian news has reported instances of people successfully using this “loophole.”) Advance voting days are October 9–12, conveniently during Canadian Thanksgiving and Columbus Day in the US.

2. Fluid definition of residency—unlike taxation and immigration

Thank you for your email … in which you requested information for students who have been living outside for more than five years. There is no differentiation between student voters abroad and non-student voters abroad; the five-year rule remains the same.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that there is no minimum period of time that an elector must have been in Canada in order to be considered as having resided there. It is based on where you consider your home address to be and the date of departure is based on the last day you consider yourself having lived in Canada.
– Elections Canada, in response to Peter W2

“Residing” has been interpreted here in the most liberal way possible by Elections Canada. It’s as though they are trying to preserve the broadest scope of voting rights possible in light of the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruling. (Good for them!)

The paragraphs quoted provide the basis for this interpretation:

Any instance of physical presence in Canada can be enough to renew your date of departure if you considered yourself to have lived in Canada during that stay.3

Elections Canada is not asserting an objective test of residency. They are not inquiring into whether the U.S. Department of Homeland Security treats you as a resident alien. They do not care when you became a nonresident for tax purposes on the CRA’s books.

So, in my interpretation, the following example set of facts satisfies their criteria and entitles the citizen to register to vote by special ballot (critical facts highlighted):

  1. Alice is a Canadian citizen.
  2. Alice is 23 years old.
  3. Alice ordinarily lives in a rented apartment in Cambridge, MA.
  4. Alice attends HLS on an F-1 student visa.
  5. Alice started studying in the U.S. on an F-1 visa 6 years ago, since August 2009.
  6. Alice intends to return to live and work in Canada after graduation.
  7. Alice last lived in the Trinity-Spadina riding in Toronto, ON, before becoming a student in the U.S.
  8. Alice last visited her parents on September 1, 2015, at that same residence in Toronto, for one day. She left on September 2.
  9. Alice does not consider any other place to be her permanent place of abode.
  10. Alice considered herself to have lived in Canada during that day. (remember, “no minimum period of time” is necessary)
  11. Alice is a temporary resident outside Canada for fewer than five years, and may register to vote by special ballot with a departure date of September 2, 2015.

For an alternative hypothetical, see footnote 4.4 Remember that these are only predictions of eligibility.

TL;DR many Canadians in the US have more ways to vote, even under the 5-year limit, than previously thought.

Again, just a reminder: I’m not a lawyer (yet). Don’t take this as legal advice. Do take it as the opinion of someone who believes the right to vote is constitutionally guaranteed to all Canadian citizens, and who wouldn’t mind seeing this tested in a legal challenge.

I get to vote!

… at least in this federal election.

After Elections Canada’s letter requesting my intended date of return, I responded by postal mail declaring a future date that should accommodate my intended career development in the United States. Needless to say, that intended date was pretty far into the future. At the close of my letter, I stressed that the Canada Elections Act has no statutory time limit on the intention to return:

I also write to emphasize that I became a nonresident of Canada upon acquiring residence in the United States on ****** **, 2014. Therefore, I am within the five-year limit on actual time abroad recently reinstated by the Court of Appeal for Ontario, even if my intended return would be beyond five years, since the applicable statute imposes no temporal restriction on the intended date of return for an eligible elector “who… (c) intends to return to Canada to resume residence in the future.” Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2000, c. 9, § 222(1).

I look forward to receiving a special ballot from your office at the upcoming election.

This week, I received the special ballot voting kit, which includes a guide pamphlet, ballot paper, an inner envelope, an outer envelope, and a preaddressed envelope.

Voting kit for special ballot
Voting kit for special ballot

* As far as I am aware (and yes, I’ve checked), it is not illegal in Canada or Ontario to photograph this kit, provided that no vote has been marked. I haven’t yet decided for whom I will vote, so this photography serves simply as an illustration of what to expect for Canadian expats, rather than as evidence of my vote.

Hopefully this won’t be the last time I get to vote in Canada from abroad.

Are you a Canadian temporarily abroad?
Register to vote with Elections Canada!

A letter from Elections Canada

We are writing to request information to update the International Register of Electors. This request is a result of a July 20, 2015, ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal, which took effect immediately.

… To receive a special ballot at the upcoming election, you must provide:

– The month and year you plan to return to Canada to reside

The implementation of this ruling demonstrates the imperfect nature of restrictions on expat voting—not only does the law have an arbitrary 5-year bar on voting from abroad, but for all expatriates Elections Canada is demanding a crystal clear declaration of the date they will return to Canada.

I think it’s worth noting that the underlying text of the statute only requires that an eligible elector “intends to return to Canada to resume residence in the future.” Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2000, c. 9, § 222(1)(c).

The agency could likely have fulfilled the statutory requirement by requiring only a simple checkbox that I do, in fact, intend to return to Canada “at some time in the future.” But that’s not what they did.

Click for the full PDFClick here for the full PDF, including the reverse side.

See also my previous two posts on this subject: Let me vote, dammit and A little more about expat voting in Canadian elections.


A little more about expat voting in Canadian elections

After blogging last week about being deprived of my right to vote as a Canadian citizen, I realized two things:

  1. I’m personally affected as far as the impending election is concerned because Elections Canada is now requiring international electors to declare an intended date of return—even those of us who have previously applied to be on the Register, and have not yet been abroad for over five years
  2. Wikipedia’s page on Elections in Canada lacked any mention of the expat situation, erroneously claiming (though it used to be true for 14 months) that “National voting is available to all Canadian citizens aged 18 or older.”

I rectified the second situation by revising those sentences and adding a section on expat voting to clarify the current state of affairs.

I believe my summary, which recalls the five-year limit’s origins in 1993, is the most compact summary of the whole picture, to date, in one place.

Of course, I humbly encourage others to contribute to Wikipedia and edit the article to continue improving its content, but I think the section I mentioned is worth quoting:

Canadian citizens abroad

Although Section Three of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “every citizen of Canada has the right to vote”,[9] in practice only those citizens 18 years of age or older, and who reside in Canada or have been abroad for fewer than five years, may vote.[10] Exemptions to the five-year limit exist for members of the Canadian Armed Forces, employees of the federal or a provincial government who are abroad, employees of certain international organizations, and their cohabitants.[10] The five-year limit was originally enacted as part of Bill C-114, An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act, in 1993; these amendments extended the special ballot to certain prisoners, and Canadians “living or travelling” abroad.[11] In September 2005, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, then the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada for 15 years, explicitly recommended in his official report that Parliament remove the five-year limit by amendment, but no action was taken.[12][13]

In May 2014, a court decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice invalidated the five-year limit as an unconstitutional restriction on the right to vote, in violation of Section Three, leading to a period of fourteen months during which all Canadian expatriates could apply to be on the register of electors.[14] However, the decision was reversed 2-1 on appeal at the Court of Appeal for Ontario on July 20, 2015, in a judicial opinion citing Canada’s history of using a residence-based electoral district system and a justification based on social contract theory, which held that the five-year limit was a permissible limitation of the constitutional right to vote under Section One.[15][16] As of August 2015, Elections Canada has implemented changes to its registration process to comply with the latest court ruling, and will require expatriates already on the register to declare an intended date of return.[17]

Again, I really hope this is appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Unfortunately, with the federal election just having been called for October 2015, it is impossible for any ruling to take effect in time for the impending election. (A legislative solution is also possible, but a court ruling would be the most optimal outcome.)