Three cheers for Canada's chief electoral officer

Mayrand has the guts to defend the law while Quebec counterpart backs down

Vote voilé - turbulences dans l'ordre démocratique

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs over a purely hypothetical question, then you must be Marc Mayrand, Canada's chief electoral officer.
In this case, the question is whether Muslim women will be forbidden to vote in next week's three federal by-elections in Quebec without first lifting their face veils to identify themselves.
Not that anybody has actually found any Muslim women who wear veils and are eligible voters in the three ridings, two of which are in predominantly rural areas where there are few Muslims. Or that their religion would prevent them from lifting their veils for purposes of identification. Or that any Muslim woman has demanded to exercise her legal right to vote without doing so.

As Mayrand pointed out yesterday, it is her right, recognized in federal legislation that provides her with other means of satisfying the identification requirement.
That legislation, known as Bill C-31, was supported on third reading in February by the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Québécois, all of which have demanded in recent days that the chief electoral officer now deny a right they themselves so recently recognized.
What's more, as Mayrand pointed out yesterday, he drew the provisions on voter identification to Parliament's attention at hearings in May, a month before it gave the legislation final approval.
So it is ironic that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who personally voted for Bill C-31, attacked the chief electoral officer on the weekend for refusing to respect the will of Parliament. For Mayrand appears to be the only one in Ottawa who still is respecting it.
As recently as July, Mayrand said yesterday, representatives of all parties in Parliament participating in a conference call in preparation for the by-elections expressed no objection to his interpretation of the law.
What happened since July? A reporter asked a hypothetical question, the chief electoral officer answered it, and his position, which was actually Parliament's, became public.
And with the reasonable accommodation of non-Christian religious practices the hottest issue in Quebec politics, and each of the federal parties competitive in at least one of the by-elections, the parties ran for cover, blaming Mayrand for what Parliament had done.
It was pointed out that Mayrand's position contradicted the one taken on the same question by his Quebec counterpart on the eve of the provincial general election last March.
But the courage and sense of duty that Mayrand showed yesterday in the face of considerable pressure contrasted with the weakness shown by Quebec's chief electoral officer, Marcel Blanchet, in similar circumstances last March - and again last week.
The chief electoral officer, it says on his website, is responsible for "guaranteeing the free exercise of the right to vote of Quebec electors." But twice now in the last six months, Blanchet has allowed himself to be intimidated into denying Muslim women the legal right also recognized by Quebec law to vote without first lifting their veils to identify themselves.
Asked the same hypothetical question about veils before the general election, Blanchet interpreted the Election Act as providing other means of satisfying the identification requirement. In response, he received threats to disrupt voting in protest. But instead of serving notice that police would be called in case of trouble, he chose to ignore his obligation to protect the right to vote and exercised his authority to overrule the Election Act.
He did so again last week. On Thursday, his spokesman told a reporter the chief electoral officer would not overrule the Election Act again for the Sept. 24 provincial by-election in Charlevoix riding.
Only a day later, however, Blanchet reversed himself because, his spokesman said, talk-radio hosts had been calling for disruptions and the chief electoral officer had again received threatening emails (although at the last census, there were all of 25 Muslims in Charlevoix, out of a population of 42,000).

Blanchet was doing so, his spokesman said, to "ensure the integrity of the vote."

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