Court orders Elections Canada to review moving voting day over religious worries

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OTTAWA — A Federal Court judge has ordered Canada’s chief electoral officer to take a second look at whether voting day this October needs to be moved because it falls on a Jewish holiday — and come up with a decision in a matter of days.

Election day can be no later than Oct. 21 under federal law, which this year falls on the Jewish holiday known as Shemini Atzeret, when observant Orthodox Jews are not permitted to work, vote or campaign.

Elections Canada has been lobbied to move the date, but decided against it this close to the start of the election campaign.

At a court hearing last week, complainants argued chief electoral officer Stephane Perrault’s decision was unreasonable.

Justice Ann Marie McDonald’s decision on Tuesday, days after a hearing, said there was a “lack of evidence” that Perrault balanced the infringement on the charter rights of affected voters against the objectives of the election law.

McDonald ordered Perrault to review his decision and strike that balance, and to do so by Aug. 1.

Elections Canada said it is reviewing the court decision.

Under federal law, the chief electoral officer can only make a recommendation to cabinet. He doesn’t have the unilateral ability to move the election date.

In early June, Conservative candidate Chani Aryeh-Bain, who is running in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, and Ira Walfish, a voter in nearby York Centre, asked the Federal Court to intervene, on the grounds Elections Canada failed to take their concerns seriously.

They also argued that scheduled advance polling days are problematic. Three out of four advance voting days — which are held on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday the week before election day — fall on dates when observant Jews wouldn’t be able to vote.

The confluence of dates “dramatically restricts” the ability of observant Jews across the country to vote and “fully participate in our democracy,” Liberal MP Michael Levitt wrote in a letter to Perrault in mid-April.

Levitt, who represents York Centre, asked Perrault at the time to reconsider the date of the vote because it conflicted with a religious observance, which the chief electoral officer is allowed to do under the election law.

“Religiously observant Jewish Canadians are entitled to equality under the law. Their religion should not be a barrier,” Levitt wrote on Twitter last week.

Elections Canada had said that rather than recommend moving election day, it instead had instructed returning officers in ridings with large Jewish populations to conduct outreach and promote extended voting hours — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — at advance polls.

On Tuesday, Aryeh-Bain, who observes the holiday, said in a statement that she hopes Perrault would move the election date to allow her “to compete in this election on an equal footing.”

In a statement, B’nai Brith Canada noted that the scheduling conflict had attracted bipartisan concern, including from Liberal MPs Marco Mendicino, whom Aryeh-Bain is trying to unseat in Toronto, and Anthony Housefather of Montreal. Chief executive Michael Mostyn called the decision a “massive victory for the Canadian Jewish community.”

“The right to vote and run for office is one of the most fundamental rights in Canadian society, and the court was right to find that Elections Canada must give them proper consideration,” Mostyn said.

“We urge the chief electoral officer to act quickly and make the right decision.”

The Canadian Press


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