The Canadian government has (finally) decided to lay to rest its plans to introduce legislation that would force women who wear niqab (fabric that covers their faces) to show their faces when voting.
This comes as a relief, not so much because of the actual legislation, but because of the amazing amount of misinformation that has surrounded the discussions – both in the media and in political spheres – about this issue for the past couple years. Chris Selley’s recent National Post blog article about this topic does a good job of exploring some of the misconceptions that arose in these discussions.
Proposing two main reasons for why the legislation was dropped, Selley first emphasises that “there is very little of a problem here to solve,” and tells us that “According to Elections Canada, not a single elector attempted to vote with her face covered in the last federal election.” Although, of course, the potential for someone to attempt to vote with their face covered in the future still exists on a hypothetical level, I think this point, as well as the fact that only a very tiny proportion of Canada’s population wears niqab, makes it pretty clear how much the panic around this issue has been totally blown out of proportion.
Selley’s second point is that:
either our government never had any intention of actually banning veiled voting, or it is so spectacularly inept that it couldn’t figure out how to do it. Indeed, it is very important to realize that at no point in this saga has legislation ever been proposed or enacted that would, in fact, force every voter’s unveiled face to be matched with a piece of photo identification.
Although the current legislation regarding voter identification was apparently supposed to make the requirements more stringent, one thing that it did not do was to require photo identification. Voters must present either one piece of photo identification with their home address, or two pieces of identification that list the voter’s name, including one that also includes the voting address, or the voter can have another registered voter from the same riding vouch for them. Note that only the first option necessitates a visual identification. Moreover, thousands of voters vote by mail every election; none of them are asked for any photographic verification of their identity. If Canada’s politicians are truly concerned about voter fraud (which is usually the main stated reason for wanting voters to show their faces), surely there are more effective ways to address this issue than to go after voters whose faces are covered.
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand said publicly in 2007 that, according to existing legislation, there would be no point in forcing voters to show their faces, since visual identification was not a requirement; however, as Selley points out, the lack of photo requirement seemed to go right over the heads of some of Canada’s politicians:
“We just adopted this spring… a law designed to have the visual identification of voters,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper fumed. “That’s the purpose of the law,” he added, astonishingly.
Not satisfied with his boss’s gaffe, Tory MP Joe Preston—a real live member of the committee that OKed the legislation, apparently without having read it—then upped the ante. “I’d love for [Mayrand] to come here and try to explain to us what he doesn’t understand,” he said, causing numerous heads to explode in the few Canadian newsrooms that actually noticed what was going on.
(Having felt like my own head was going to explode at a few points while researching this issue for both blogging and academic purposes, part of me feels a little bit gratified that at least I’m not alone.)
Selley writes that even the proposed new legislation would not have actually changed the documentation required to prove a voter’s identity:
It would simply have required that voters show their faces whilst presenting the ID, photo or otherwise.
As I said at the time, the concern was that a veiled woman could provide photo ID but not have to show her face, rendering the photo ID pointless. And the proposed remedy was to allow a veiled woman to provide non-photo ID but force her to show her face, rendering the unveiling pointless. Pointless, that is, if the goal was actually to ensure Canadians’ unveiled faces are matched with photo ID before they vote. Unfortunately for all of us, the goal was nothing more than to capitalize on a hot-button issue.
The last sentence of this quote – that the panic around this topic was less about actual worries about voter fraud than it was about “capitaliz[ing] on a hot-button issue” – highlights, for me, the most disturbing part of this whole thing. I followed a lot of the media hype around it in the fall, and much of it seemed to be from people worried that Muslims were taking over Canada’s political systems and forcing Elections Canada to allow them to vote with faces covered, despite a total lack of evidence that any of this was coming from Muslims, as well as the fact that the absence of a requirement of photo identification was part of the existing laws and not some concession being made to Muslim communities (who, again, had not even asked for any such concession.) The comments on some of the news articles were even worse; women in niqab were portrayed as dangerous and untrustworthy, and as a foreign threat, despite the fact that, as voters, the women in question are necessarily Canadian citizens.
To be honest, if photo ID was required for all voters, I probably would not have a problem with everyone being required to actually show their faces in order to confirm their identities (although I would hope that this would be done in conditions that everyone would be comfortable with.) However, considering that this is not the case, and that the hype around this issue has only served to paint Muslim Canadians as threatening and as non-Canadians, I am, like Chris Selley, “thrilled to see this ugly chapter in Canadian politics closed.”