10th September 2007:
A decision by Elections Canada has reignited a fire storm in Quebec. Under new rules muslim women will be allowed to vote in three upcoming byelections wearing veils that cover their faces. As Rob Lurie reports, it's a decision Quebec politicians want changed.
Canada's chief electoral officer says he was just following the law when he ruled that veiled women could cast their vote without having to visually identify themselves.
If Parliament has a problem with that, then the change in legislation will have to come from their end, and not from the independent government agency, said Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer for Elections Canada.
Speaking at a news conference late Monday morning, Mayrand said the current legislation provides options for voters to cast ballots without providing photo identification or showing their face.
He said he pointed this out in June, but the legislation wasn't altered.
"I myself indicated that under the rules being studied an individual could vote without having to uncover their face. Parliament did not choose to amend the bill at the time," Mayrand said.
He also said the mail-in method of voting, used by 80,000 voters in the last federal election, requires no visual contact at all between the voter and Elections Canada staff.
Mayrand was defending Elections Canada's recent decision to waive visual identification for veiled voters after coming under harsh criticism from politicians and Muslim groups alike.
On Monday, speaking in Canberra, Australia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper blasted the agency for the second day. He said Elections Canada has defied Bill C-31, which was passed by Parliament in June, by allowing Muslim women to wear veils and burkas while voting.
He said it's not the first time the agency has gone against the will of the elected Parliament.
"I'm obviously very disappointed with this decision. Parliament has just passed a law and its intention is very clear -- the intention is to have photographic identification of voters. I'm disappointed with Elections Canada and I don't think it's the only case where Elections Canada is giving a ruling on the laws they wish they had, rather than the laws that are actually on the books."
Harper said the current legislation will be reviewed in the near future and the government will "look at options."
Mayrand said the law may have been intended to require visual identification of voters at the polls, but that is not what it says.
In fact, Bill C-31 was amended in a number of areas, to address concerns about voter identification and fraud, but wasn't altered to require visual identification at the polls. A legislative summary on the Government of Canada website does say the committee looking at the issue was "struck by the absence of any requirement for an elector to confirm his or her identity when presenting himself or herself at a polling station to vote."
According to the legislative summary last updated on June 22, the government's changes to voter identification rules required the following:
Prospective voters must provide one piece of identification, issued by any level of government, containing a photograph and the name and address of the elector.
The voter may present two pieces of identification, regardless of who issued them, each of which establishes their name, and one of which establishes their address, if those pieces of identification have been authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer.
The amendments require the Chief Electoral Officer to publish, each year and within three days of the issue of an election writ, a list of the types of identification that are adequate alternatives to government-issued photo identification.
If an elector has no suitable identification, he or she may take a prescribed oath provided that he or she is vouched for by another person whose name is on the list of electors in the same polling division as the elector and who has the required identification
Officials, candidates and their representatives may demand that an elector take an oath if they have "reasonable doubts" concerning that person's eligibility to vote, notwithstanding that the elector may have adequate proof of identification.
Was PM briefed on the issue?
Paula Todd, CTV Newsnet's legal expert and host of The Verdict, said the law, as it now stands, simply doesn't require visual identification. She suggested Harper was not properly briefed before he commented on the issue.
"Right now under the current law, whether you can see a woman's face or not, doesn't matter so long as she can provide other forms of identification or someone can vouch for her," Todd told CTV Newsnet.
"If in fact what (Harper) wants is to have every single person visible at the polling booth, he needs to bring in a law that says we all need to have photo I.D. ... that hasn't happened yet."
Despite that, Mayrand said voters will be asked to visually identify themselves. However, if they choose not to and can provide other information to verify their identity, they will still be allowed to vote.
"I have not amended the act to say that she must unveil her face," Mayrand said. "It is up to the voter to decide what procedure to use."
Any amendment to the legislation to require visual identification will have to be made by Parliament, he said.
The Elections Canada ruling was prompted by three upcoming byelections in Quebec on Sept. 17 in ridings that are significantly multi-cultural.
Move not necessary: Elgazzar
Speaking with CTV Montreal, a spokeswoman with the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations said the move was unnecessary.
"It is very very clear this is not something those women asked for, and it's not something they need," Sarah Elgazzar told CTV Montreal.
People who wear the face coverings generally don't object to identifying themselves, Elgazzar said, and that's why a ruling like this only creates a false impression of Muslim women and stigmatizes the population.
Although the motivation behind the decision by Elections Canada may have been good, it has caused more harm than good, she said.
Liberal Opposition Leader Stephane Dion suggested, by way of compromise, that female officials with Elections Canada could be on hand at polling stations, to identify women behind their veils.
Photo identification isn't part of any of the voting requirements in Ontario, where an election campaign began Monday. The three main party leaders in the province said they trusted the wisdom of their chief electoral officer, The Canadian Press reports.
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