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Statements and Speeches

The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Marc Mayrand,
clarifies application of the new voter identification
provisions of the Canada Elections Act

DATE: September 10, 2007 at 11:00 a.m.
LOCATION: National Press Theatre, Ottawa


Marc Mayrand: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm here this morning to clarify the voter identification rules as currently set out in the Canada Elections Act and to inform you about the administrative measures I have taken to invite individuals whose face is covered to uncover when arriving in the polling station to vote.

Let me first begin by reminding you about my role as Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. This role is to administer the Canada Elections Act as enacted by elected representatives in Parliament. I cannot assume the responsibility of parliamentarians. It is not up to me to amend the law. I do not make rules. I administer the Act as enacted and carry out the powers and duties it confers upon me.

Until June 22, 2007, the Canada Elections Act stated that registered voters could go to the polling station, simply state their name and address and be issued a ballot.

In June, Parliament passed new provisions requiring electors to prove their identity and residential address before being able to vote.

There are several ways of doing this under the Act that do not require confirming the identity of the elector by using a photo ID. Indeed, under the Act, the electors have three options to identify themselves. First, they can choose to produce one piece of government-issued ID showing their photograph, name and residential address. For electors choosing this method, the deputy returning officer must, of course, be able to compare their photo with their face. In that case, an elector whose face is covered would have to remove the covering.

No piece of identification issued by the federal government meets all three requirements, not even the Canadian passport as it does not contain the address. Certain pieces of identification issued by the provinces do, however, especially the driver's licence.

So for electors without a piece of government-issued photo identification showing their name and residential address, a second option to identify themselves is to produce two pieces authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer. The Act in that regard does not require that these pieces of ID contain their photo. In this situation, therefore, the person's face is not compared with a photograph.

Third, Parliament has provided that electors without any piece of identification may take an oath and be vouched by another registered voter. Here again there's no visual comparison required.

And quite apart from all those three options, electors can also vote by mail. By definition, this special procedure precludes visual contact between the elector and election staff. I want to point out that upwards of 80,000 electors voted by mail in the 2006 general election.

Again, the Act provides several ways of voting that do not require the visual comparison of the elector with a photograph. [The choice continues to be up to the individual.] This was stated by Mr. Mayrand in French.

The controversy that brings me to you today arose as a result of questions asked by the media. I would point out that I have received no request for special treatment on the part of any elector. I understand that there's a few hundred women wearing veils for religious reasons in the country, and I understand that most of them would agree to lift the veil in proper circumstances.

On May 16 of this year, during the study of Bill C-31, I testified before the Senate in the company of my counterpart from Quebec who explained the approach he had taken during the provincial election held in the spring. I myself indicated that under the rules being studied, individuals could vote without having to uncover their face. Parliament did not choose to amend the bill at the time.

On July 26th, while finalizing our preparations for the by-election that was to be called no later than July 28th in Outremont, we held a conference call with representatives of registered political parties to discuss the approach that I planned to take with regard to a variety of questions, including the individuals with face coverings. In the days that followed, I also forwarded the documentation prepared for this meeting to the government and the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to inform them about the conference call, the topics discussed and invite them to send me their feedback.

In the past week, the media have raised a number of questions. Given the heated nature of the debate, we issued a press release reiterating the legislative requirements established by Parliament and the approach discussed with all political parties, government and the Standing Committee. Since then, politicians have added their voices to those of others.

During the last few days, we have reviewed the entire process and clarified the procedure to be followed at the polling station. I have reminded election personnel of the importance of confirming voters' eligibility, in particular ensuring that they are 18 or over.

In that vein, I have asked election personnel to invite anyone whose face is concealed to uncover it in a manner that is respectful of their beliefs. If they decline to do so, voters must take an oath as to their qualification as an elector in order to be eligible to vote. However, I have not amended the Act to require them to uncover their face. Again, the choice continues to be up to the individual.

There's been much discussion about the authority of the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt the Act. This authority is exceptional and must be exercised with utmost caution and circumspection and only when deemed necessary by reasons of mistakes, emergency or unusual or unforeseen circumstances. And this is only for a temporary period of time. It is not for the CEO to substitute his will for the express will of Parliament.

As a rule, this authority is intended to facilitate the voting process, not to restrict electors' fundamental rights. There is no reason at this time to exercise my authority to adapt the Act. However, I will continue to monitor the situation very closely and, if circumstances arise, I will take appropriate measures.

In conclusion, I wish to remind you that we all live in a democracy incurred in the rule of law which guarantees certain rights and freedoms to all citizens. My responsibility in administering the Canada Elections Act is to ensure that those rights are protected. Events of the last few days have tested our ability to do so.

Therefore, I invite Parliament to review and, if it wishes to do so, amend the provisions governing the conduct of the vote in light of the many comments voiced by politicians and the public. In my opinion, it's not for the administrator of an electoral system to settle the current societal debate. If I were to do so, I would assume the role that does not belong to me and, above all, usurping that of Canada's elected representatives.

In the meantime, I appeal to the wisdom and civic-mindedness of all citizens to ensure a smooth election process on September 17 for the by-elections in Outremont, Roberval–Lac-Saint-Jean and Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot.

Thank you.