Behind the veil

Vote voilé - turbulences dans l'ordre démocratique

On Sunday, Stephen Harper used strong language to slap down his Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, who recently ruled that veiled Muslim women can vote even if they refuse to show their faces to polling officers. In this rebuke, the Prime Minister was supported by all three opposition parties. Opposition to veiled voting appears to be one of the few issues that can unite Canada's fractious Parliament.
Our first-blush instinct is to add our voice to those criticizing Mr. Mayrand. But we cannot bring ourselves to do so. As columnist Lorne Gunter noted yesterday on these pages, nothing in the current law requires a voter to show his or her face when he or she votes.
Indeed, as Mr. Mayrand told reporters at a press conference yesterday, 80,000 Canadians voted by mail during the last election -- a process that obviously does not permit electoral officers to see a voter's face. People wearing bandages on their faces are also permitted to vote. Moreover, the law permits Canadians to vote in person even if they do not have photo identification, providing they take an oath and have a neighbour vouch for them.

If we do not demand that a voter's face be matched to an official picture of them, what sense does it make to insist that they show their faces in the first place?
As we see it, the best way to deal with this controversy is by eliminating such lax identification standards through new, stricter voting legislation. As Mr. Gunter wrote, voting is a serious business. You need photo ID to buy cigarettes or board a plane -- so why not when you're picking a government?
Once the law is changed, dignified procedures can be employed to check the status of veiled Muslim women. But, in truth, we doubt such procedures would prove necessary: Surprisingly, many Muslim leaders have joined Mr. Harper in condemning Mr. Mayrand's decision, declaring that it is hardly out of keeping with Muslim tradition for a woman to lift her veil while voting.
Mr. Harper is correct that veiled voting is an affront to our democracy. But this is only one problem with the current law. We urge the PM to act quickly to ensure that all voters in the next election must demonstrate to electoral officers that they match their professed identity.

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