COMMENTARY: Leave the date of the October federal election where it is
Assuming that Canadians do indeed go to the polls in October, it will mark the third time in four elections that the vote has fallen in that particular month.
Since 2000, though, we’ve also had federal elections in November, May, January, and June — so we’re not exactly fussy when it comes to election dates.
In the past, election timing has largely depended on when the incumbent party was in the mood for an election, but the Canada Elections Act now stipulates that an election occur on the third Monday of October four years after the previous general election. We last voted on Oct. 19, 2015, and under this framework we are to vote on Oct. 21, 2019.
Except this time around, Oct. 21 coincides with the Jewish holiday Shemini Atzeret — a day on which Orthodox Jews are not to work, vote or campaign. That’s problematic for Chani Aryeh-Bain, who is the Conservative candidate for the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence.
After winning the nomination in April, Aryeh-Bain noticed this election day conflict and took the matter to Federal Court, hoping to force Elections Canada to postpone the election by one week.
This past week yielded a mixed result in terms of a ruling, as the judge stopped short of ordering a change in the date but did order the Chief Electoral Officer to conduct a “redetermination that reflects a proportionate balancing of the Charter rights with the statutory mandate.”
It’s therefore possible that the date of the federal election could be moved. All things considered, though, it should not.
Much work has already gone into preparing for election day, and changing the date this late in the game would certainly cause a lot of (potentially expensive) headaches for Elections Canada. That’s not to say that most voters would be particularly inconvenienced if the election happened to occur on Oct. 28, but it’s not clear that the change is necessary.
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Canada is a pluralistic country, and we should embrace that. No one should be denied the opportunity to cast a ballot in a federal election because of their religious beliefs and practices.
However, there are ways of accommodating that without rescheduling the entire election.
The additional challenge in this case is that three out of the four days set aside for advance voting happen to coincide with dates that would preclude observant Jews from voting. That does leave at least one day of advance voting, as well as voting by special ballots that can be obtained by those who are unable to vote in either the general election or the advanced polling.
Moreover, Election Canada is not oblivious to this issue. It has already announced plans to extend voting hours at advanced polling dates and to add extra staff. There are also plans to engage in an awareness campaign to ensure that observant Jews are aware of their voting options.
It’s also worth noting that there is a difference of opinion on this among Canada’s Jewish community. While B’nai Brith Canada has intervened in support of Chani Aryeh-Bain’s case, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs says Elections Canada has acted in “good faith,” and that it doesn’t see a need to change the election date.
There are all sorts of obligations and inconveniences that voters might encounter on the day of an election, but we also have provisions in place to help people deal with that. I can appreciate that religious observances are important, but those obligations also demand of followers some level of sacrifice.
Advanced polling and special ballots — as well as stepped-up efforts from Elections Canada — should suffice.
Ideally, the time to address all of this would have been when we enacted the provision that the election “occur on the third Monday of October,” not mere months before the election itself. At the same time, it’s reasonable that after Oct. 21, we can engage in a conversation about whether to make a change to the fourth Monday in October or the first Monday in November or something else.
Keep the vote where it is, and let’s revisit this afterward.
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