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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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Flexibility needed in setting election date: CIJA

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Eric Maldoff

UPDATE: Quebec’s proposed legislation to permanently fix provincial election dates should be amended to allow for flexibility in setting the actual day, says the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

However, the centre has not specifically requested that the main vote not be held on a Jewish High Holiday.

“In drafting a new election act,” said CIJA Quebec chair Eric Maldoff, “we should be tearing down obstacles to voter engagement, not creating new ones.”

Bill 3 sets the election day for every four years on the first Monday of October. In the first year that it would be in effect – 2016 – that day is Rosh Hashanah.

The Liberal opposition had demanded that a clause be included to enable the election to be moved by a week to avoid conflict with a major religious holiday, as well as in the event of extraordinary circumstances. Such flexibility had been included when the bill was introduced by the Liberals last March, and all four parties agreed to it.

On June 11, Bernard Drainville, minister for Democratic Institutions and Citizen Participation, tabled an amendment that would allow the director-general of elections to postpone the voting day to the next Monday if a natural disaster or other serious and unforeseen problem arises.

The amendment makes no mention of accommodating a religious holiday.

The Liberals have now dropped their broader proposed amendment and, along with the Coalition Avenir Quebec, have agreed to the new draft.

Maldoff stated on June 12 that the objective of the law should be to encourage maximum participation in all aspects of the electoral process.

“A fundamental objective of electoral reform should be to encourage citizen engagement and participation. The aim should be to strengthen our democratic institutions and processes with a view to inclusiveness, participation and social cohesion.

“We want Quebecers not only to vote in greater numbers but also to have the opportunity to campaign and work at the polls.”

He noted that other jurisdictions with fixed-date elections have allowed for some discretion, even up to a time frame of several weeks.

CIJA board member Rabbi Reuben Poupko told The CJN that the organization’s preference is that the flexibility that the original bill tabled by the Liberals last spring be restored to the version the Parti Québécois has put forward.

Before backing off on his demand for religious accommodation, Liberal leader Philippe Couillard said the historic avoidance of holding an election on an important non-Christian holiday should continue and no segment of the population should be excluded from the regular electoral process.

Liberal D’Arcy McGee MNA Lawrence Bergman, the sole Jewish MNA and a member of the committee studying Bill 3, commented, “You choose one of the most important holidays for a specific community. It excludes 85,000 people from voting on that particular day. For me, that’s unacceptable… There’s a sense of nastiness there…”

B’nai Brith Canada, however, said it is all right with the bill as it was introduced by the PQ. “We have taken the same stand with federal elections – as long as there is ample time in advance to vote, we are OK with it,” said Anna Ahronheim, director of government and community relations… This is a reasonable accommodation.”

Drainville has insisted that a fixed date cannot be modified for religious reasons.

He argued that there are more than 100 religious holidays through the year observed by Quebecers, and, that if the date was adjusted for the Jewish community, such consideration would have to be extended to all faith groups.

Drainville said that those who cannot vote on election day can do so at the advance polls or at their constituency’s director-general of elections office in the seven days leading up to the election.

Some members of the Jewish community, however, view holding an election on a High Holiday as marginalizing the community and a break with the tradition of taking into account the sensitivities of a community established here for more than two centuries.

In addition to excluding Jews from participating on election day, Sidney Margles, who was a Town of Mount Royal councillor for many years, points out that a High Holiday election would restrict other types of participation by Jews.

Those who work on election campaigns, either for candidates or for the director-general of elections, could not do so on a holiday, he said.

Jewish candidates would also be unable to fully participate, Margles added.

Drainville said that “the vast majority” of Quebecers want voting to take place at the same time every four years, that it is “good for democracy” and will save the public purse up to $2 million by avoiding “false starts” in electioneering.

He noted that among the other provinces that have fixed elections, half make accommodation for minority religious holidays and half do not.

In Ontario, where there are fixed-date elections, for example, the Chief Electoral Officer can put off the election by one week.

Drainville rejected the accusation that the PQ is intolerant, and pleaded for critics to refrain from using such labels, especially at a time when the government will soon be taking the province into another discussion on secularism and “Quebec values.” The government is preparing a charter establishing these values that it plans to introduce in the fall.

Rabbi Poupko, already troubled by Drainville’s objection to leniency in parking regulations in Montreal during Jewish holidays, commented, “More troubling than the [effect on] turnout is the signal sent about the acceptance of diversity and minorities.”

Community member Arthur Hiess said the PQ government is “looking to pick a fight with its minority citizens to advance the separatist cause. It’s the lowest kind of politics, bordering on racism, not just intolerance.”

Hiess, who works professionally as a business consultant with clients across Canada, said Quebec’s policies are damaging the provinces image and reputation in North America. “It is hurting the province in the pocketbook.”

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