Our parliamentarians dishonour themselves over veiled voting

It is not entirely clear whether you can vote with a paper bag over your head in Canada. But our MPs should consider it.

Unless you habitually go about with your eyes and ears covered, you’ll know the recent discovery that you can vote federally with your face concealed has caused great upset on Parliament Hill. Amid a flurry of denunciations, the House Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) unanimously urged Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand to reverse this ruling and, when he refused, unanimously summoned him to appear before them. To their shame, as it is their blunder, not his.

As Mr. Mayrand pointed out in a press conference this Monday, his job is to enforce the law not make it. The law as written does not require voters to unveil and, most crucially, as MPs just revised the Canada Elections Act this summer and didn’t incorporate any such requirement, it is not his place to read it in. Veiled voting was a prominent issue in the Quebec provincial election earlier this year and Mr. Mayrand personally drew parliamentarians’ attention to it in May, while the relevant Bill C-31 was before the Senate, and again in a conference call with representatives of the registered parties on July 26. Since MPs failed to act on it, he concludes, the constitutional protection of freedom of religion requires him to interpret the law permissively in this regard.

I found Mr. Mayrand less persuasive on two side issues. First, if MPs clearly indicate a determination to amend the law to forbid veiled voting at their earliest opportunity I think he not only can but must use his emergency powers to ban it in the Monday by-elections. Second, he told the press conference the rest of us could not vote with paper bags on our heads. But the Constitution protects freedom of conscience and speech as well as religion, so if veiled voting is permitted we should be able to wear other types of mask in, for instance, an orderly protest against bad electoral policy. Otherwise he was convincing.

Unlike MPs, who contrived further to disgrace themselves, no easy task in Ottawa nowadays. Tory Joe Preston said Mr. Mayrand should appear before PROC “and explain to us what he doesn’t understand about photo ID.” A Sept. 10 Bloc Québécois press release claimed (my translation) Parliament “has decided that from now on, all voters must identify themselves to vote at the federal level.” And the prime minister called C-31 “a law designed to have the visual identification of voters.” But it is they who do not understand, even after Mr. Mayrand publicly explained it, what the law they just wrote says.

Section 143 of the amended Canada Elections Act, for better or worse, specifies three ways of establishing your identity at the polling station. One is a piece of ID from some Canadian government bearing your name, address and photo, in which case you must show your face. But the second is “two pieces of identification authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer each of which establish the elector’s name and at least one of which establishes the elector’s address” but need not have photos. In which case there’s obviously no identification function served by showing your face. Anyway, the third is simply to be vouched for by someone who has established their own identity one of the first two ways. Plus, you can vote by mail which doesn’t involve photo ID or any other kind.

I do not think MPs should have written the law in this fashion. While Canadians are by and large honest, it is asking for trouble to permit voting with weaker security than you’d tolerate to rent a car. But that’s not the point here. Nor is the widespread and legitimate discomfort among Canadians with people who insist on covering their faces in dealings with strangers.

The point at present is that on an important issue most MPs seem incapable of perceiving their error, which speaks poorly of their intellect, or of admitting it, which speaks poorly of their character. To his credit NDP MP Yvon Godin has confessed that “maybe all parties should be kicking our own butts. We could have fixed it ourselves.” But the reaction of most of his colleagues has far more Bart Simpson than Edmund Burke in it.

One is tempted to ask if they cannot read the relevant statute. It’s not hard to find; Mr. Mayrand handed out copies at his press conference. But in any case the appropriate response is: Read the law? You wrote it.

If it turns out the paper bag is illegal, MPs could vote wearing dunce caps. I expect they’d fit nicely.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, Politics, ReligionJohn Robson