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Elections Canada stands by veil voting [PoliticsWatch updated 1:20 p.m., September 10, 2007]

The Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois and Liberals want Elections Canada to reverse a decision allowing Muslim women whose faces are covered to vote.

OTTAWA  — Canada's chief electoral officer said Monday his officials will not deny Muslim women the right to vote if they do not show their faces at polling stations in three federal byelections next week. 

Marc Mayrand made the comments at a press conference on Parliament Hill Monday. 

He said Elections Canada officials will request Muslim women unveil themselves, but if they refuse to do so they can still vote as long as they present two pieces of identification and take an oath confirming their identity. 

"I have not amended the (Election) act to require them to uncover their face," he said. "The choice continues to be up to the individual." 

Elections Canada is an independent agency that reports to Parliament. 

On Thursday evening, Elections Canada released a statement saying it would allow veiled women to vote in three September 17 byelections as long as they showed two pieces of identification or had someone "vouch" for them at the polling station.  

The statement has created a political firestorm. 

Mayrand has been asked to reverse his controversial decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of the Bloc Quebecois and the Liberals. 

Harper pointed out that Mayrand's interpretation went against the spirit of the recently passed Bill C-31, which requires voters produce photo identification. 

However, Mayrand told reporters on Monday that there is nothing in the new voter identification law that compels visual identity of the voters and he informed the major political parties about his plan to allow veiled women to vote during a conference call in July. He said there were no objections at the time. 

He also used the press conference to downplay the impact of his interpretation of the election law. Mayrand noted that there were no requests to Elections Canada for special treatment by any group and said that only "a few hundred" Muslim women in Canada wear a veil for religious reasons. 

"I understand that most of them would agree to lift the veil in proper circumstances," he noted. 

Relatively new to his job, the chief electoral officer now finds himself at odds with the biggest political players in the country. 

The Bloc is considering introducing legislation when the House returns in October that clearly states voters must show their faces at polling stations. 

Harper has not ruled out revisiting the issue. 

"So I hope that (Elections Canada) will reconsider this decision, but in the meantime if that doesn't happen, Parliament will have to consider what actions it's going to take to make sure that its intentions are put into place," Harper said while in Australia on the weekend.  

The Liberals also want Elections Canada to reconsider its decision. 

"We do believe that when they are casting a vote in elections, Canadian citizens have a responsibility to fully reveal their identities," Liberal leader Stéphane Dion said in a statement. 

"For this reason, we would ask Elections Canada to reconsider its decision, and to require veiled women to unveil their faces to confirm their identity."  

NDP leader Jack Layton is the only party leader not to ask Elections Canada to reverse its decision. Layton's office told PoliticsWatch on Friday it would allow Elections Canada to determine how it identifies voters. 

This is the second time in less than a year that veiled voting has become controversial in Canadian politics. Earlier this year, Quebec's provincial chief electoral officer ruled that all voters in provincial elections would have to show their faces, despite previously deciding Muslim women could vote with a veil on.

The Canadian Coalition for Democracies was the first group to criticize Election Canada's decision.  

"Beyond the ballot box, religious face coverings have at times been misused in Canada and around the world to facilitate fraud and other criminal acts," the group said in a statement. 

"Veiling has been used abroad to advance terrorist operations, including suicide bombings. Such risks compelled France to ban the burqa in certain public spheres, and the Netherlands’ government - among others - is considering doing the same."

The group noted that "some of Canada’s elites" are unfazed by these threats and "appear helpless in the face of radical lobbying in the name of 'accommodation.'"

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