Monday, 16 March 2015

Weekend elections may offend some pious folk

When I was a teenager, my mother arranged for me to participate in a federal election as a poll scrutineer.

It wasn’t a difficult job, but for a sixteen year old, it was my first insight into the electoral process in Canada.

My job as a scrutineer was to watch the ballot count and to note the number of spoiled or questioned ballots and to ensure that the total matched what was reported and then to call the total in to the party office.

I’ve been hooked o politics and elections ever since.

This past week the Chief Electoral Officer in Ontario published the report on the 2014 provincial election. It makes good reading. It is a snapshot of where we are as a province and how we see ourselves as voters.

One of the more interesting emerging issues that the Chief Electoral officer notes is people taking “selfies” or pictures of themselves with their marked electoral ballot. As the report says, “This practice contravenes the Election Act as it involves displaying a ballot that indicates how a person voted and can therefore potentially influence other electors. Breaking this law can carry a $5,000 fine.

Ouch.

The report went on, “When Elections Ontario became aware of posted selfies involving pictures of ballots, action had to be taken to enforce the Election Act. Accordingly, we sent messages to the individuals instructing them to take the photos down. The messages, however, were not well understood by most recipients and, in many cases, not well received.”

I love the understatement “not well received”.

While the report offers many suggestions for improvement and reports that the election came in significantly under budget ($90.3 Million estimate vs. $77 Million actual cost), one suggestion is a bit troubling.

It is proposed that the fixed election date be moved to a weekend.

The rationale is that this will allow schools to be used as polling stations in off hours, with little impact on their function. It would also allow safety concerns of school board over access of non-staff or students to schools.

What the proposal does not recognize is that for three of the world’s faiths, Friday (Islam), Saturday (Judaism) and Sunday (Christianity) are religious holy days. And while an argument could be made that voting doesn’t impinge on religious practice, if voting takes just a few minutes, there are many other factors to consider.

Some faiths have prohibitions on travel (orthodox Jews, for example) on the Sabbath. Other faiths may encourage a day of rest (Christianity) or prayer (Islam).

This is one of those situations where various rights conflict with each other. While one has an obligation as a citizen to vote, religious obligations, the practice of which are guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, may intervene.  Conversations will have to be sensitive and open to determine an appropriate way forward for our electoral process.

Respect for religious practices is a hallmark of our Canadian multicultural nation. We have long past the days when Ontario was (if it ever really was) a dominantly white, English-speaking, Protestant province where the sidewalks were rolled up on Sundays.

We have changed. And our challenge is to adapt and adopt practices which reflect the broad and multifaceted community which we have become.

I wish the Chief Electoral Officer well. But I also see struggles ahead as we navigate our democratic waters.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.