Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other federal leaders are pandering to Quebecers' fears about Islam. With three by-elections soon to be held in Quebec, they have declared that veiled Muslim women should not be able to vote without showing their face. The leaders have seized on a potent symbol of a religious minority trying to impose its way on the country. But the symbol is a false one, and the leaders know it. Not saying so is cowardly and irresponsible.
Protecting the integrity of the voting system is essential, but the rules designed by Parliament for that purpose do not require photo identification. A voter who shows her face without also showing a photo identification card has verified nothing. Voters don't have to show a photo identification card for the simple reason that many - those without drivers' licenses, for instance - do not have such a card. That is why the Elections Act offers alternatives. Those without government-issued photo ID may show two pieces of identification approved by the Chief Electoral Officer, as long as one shows their address. Or they may have another voter vouch for them (no more than one person per "voucher"), if each swears an oath.
If the system for verifying a voter's identity with written identification or sworn statements is considered good enough for other Canadians, it should be good enough for those who cover their faces for religious reasons. That is why Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand says he will permit veiled women to vote as long as their identity can be confirmed. He was not making a special accommodation. He was applying the law as it stands.
Mr. Harper surely knows what that law says. His government passed it with opposition support earlier this year. He also knows that eligible voters living temporarily abroad may vote by mail; they do not show their face, except to a mailbox. Yet on the weekend in Sydney, he accused Mr. Mayrand of defying the will of Parliament. "The role of Elections Canada is not to make its own laws." This false accusation against an independent Officer of Parliament smacks of intimidation.
The willingness of leaders to inflame passions at the expense of Muslims is exactly what led to the embarrassing last-minute reversal by Quebec's Chief Electoral Officer, Marcel Blanchet, over the same issue before that province's election last March. He folded under threats that masked voters would turn up in droves at polling stations, and announced that women may not wear a veil to vote.
Mr. Harper is not alone. Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion also said that Mr. Mayrand was wrong, and offered an accommodation - that veiled women show their face to a female polling official. That would be a sensible compromise, if Canada had tougher rules requiring photo identification. Under the current system, it would amount to an unfair singling out.
No accommodation should be made that would weaken the voting system's integrity. Further, these are divisive times, and public policy should help bring Canadians together around common values. But this is not about social cohesion or integration. It is a case of crass political considerations trumping reason. It is not even clear that Muslim Canadians wish to conceal their faces when they vote, or that they asked for any special consideration. Mr. Harper and the other leaders should take their own advice. They should respect the voting law, and not single out veiled women for special treatment.