In April, Jean-François Blanchet, director of electoral operations at Elections Quebec and assistant to the province’s chief electoral officer, issued an apology to the Liberal association in Montreal’s D’Arcy-McGee riding. The previous year’s provincial election had been held Oct. 1, coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the last day of the Sukkot festival, and despite warnings that Elections Quebec prepare for increased interest in advance voting and early balloting among the riding’s large Orthodox population, the operation was botched.
Several early voting dates conflicted with other Jewish holidays. A formal complaint made to Elections Quebec accused staff at early voting locations of not being equipped to handle the large turnout. There were long lines, in some cases ending with votes not even being cast. Total voter turnout in the riding was only 47 per cent, down from 72 per cent during the 2014 election.
To reiterate: this happened less than a year ago.
So if you have been unenthused by the recent calls of Chani Aryeh-Bain, the Conservative candidate in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, and activist Ira Walfish to move the upcoming federal election, scheduled for Oct. 21, because it coincides with Shemini Atzeret, at least consider that there is very recent precedent at play here.
As The CJN’s Ron Csillag reported last month, Aryeh-Bain and Walfish argued before the Federal Court of Canada that chief electoral officer Stéphane Perrault’s decision not to postpone the election date by one week constituted religious discrimination against Canada’s approximately 75,000 Orthodox Jews. The court ordered Perrault to review the issue, but he ultimately opted not to change the decision. Moving the election date, Perrault said in a statement delivered July 29, “is not in the public interest.”
This was “not a decision that I make lightly,” he added, “but with a view to providing the broadest possible range of accessible voting services to the population at large.”
There are indeed plenty of voting options for Canadian Jews who can’t cast a ballot on Oct. 21 for religious reasons. Elections Canada offices will process votes any time between when the writ is dropped and six days before the election date. Early voting offices will be set up on university campuses. There are applications to vote by mail – you have until Oct. 15 to request one of those. Additional early balloting options are on the table. Elections Canada is also promising that a community relations officer will be available in each riding with a significant Jewish population.
In other words, if you want to vote, you will be able to. But forgive Aryeh-Bain, Walfish and their supporters for calling attention to this matter, and for feeling let down by those in the Jewish community who have been less than sympathetic to their cause.
“There is no such thing as a perfect election day, especially in a country as diverse as Canada,” Perrault said.
That may be so, but Elections Canada should at least strive for perfection when it comes to ensuring that every Orthodox Jew is afforded the opportunity to vote. It didn’t happen in Quebec last year. Let’s hope the lesson has been learned.