Ontario is one of three provinces to have adopted legislation providing
for fixed election dates. British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador
are the others. But, what happens if the date provided in the legislation
coincides with a date of religious or cultural significance for a particular
segment of the population? This article explains how Ontario handled such
a situation when the date defined in the legislation, October 4, 2007,
coincided with a religious observance.
The fixed date for Ontario elections was first introduced as a commitment
during the 2003 election campaign. The government moved forward with the
legislation and it was then my responsibility to administer it.
Section 9.1(6) of the Election Act reads as follows:
If the Chief Election Officer is of the opinion that a Thursday that would
otherwise be polling day is not suitable for that purpose because it is
a day of cultural or religious significance, the Chief Election Officer
shall choose another day in accordance with subsection (7) and recommend
to the Lieutenant Governor in Council that polling day should be that other
day, and the Lieutenant Governor in Council may make an order to that effect.
Section 9.1(7) reads:
The alternate day shall be one of the seven days following the Thursday
that would otherwise be polling day.
This was the target, or, as we would later define it, the flexibility we
Section 9.1(8) states:
In the case of a general election under subsection 9(2), an order under
subsection (6) shall not be made after August 1 in the year in which the
general election is to be held.
I will go back to the three words that I found very important: cultural,
religious and significant. It was important for us to understand
and define them.
With regard to culture, in the absence of a definition by the Election
Act or any found in provincial legislation or ministry sites, we used culture
as it is defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO). Cultures embrace literature and the arts as well
as ways of life, value systems, traditions and beliefs. In deriving cultural
groups, we have deferred primarily to the latter part of this definition
and looked at ethnicity and country of origin.
Religion is not defined under the Election Act. Under the provinces Religious
Organizations Lands Act, religious organization means an association
of persons which, among other things, is organized for the advancement
of religion and for the conduct of religious worship, services or rites,
and is permanently established both as to the continuity of its existence
and as to its religious beliefs, rituals and practices. It includes an
association of persons that is charitable according to the law of Ontario
and that is organized for the advancement of and for the conduct of worship,
services or rites of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Bahai,
Longhouse Indian, Sikh, Unitarian or Zoroastrian faith, or a subdivision
or denomination thereof.
In its classic definition, "A religion is a unified system
of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set
apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral
community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."1
In the absence of a definition by the Election Act,
we interpreted "significance'' to be such that a single elector could not attend
a poll to cast his or her ballot due to the preclusion of the cultural or
religious day and, as an extension, that they could not participate in the
electoral process as we know it. By extension, this would also include being a
candidate for office or working as an election worker as the rest of the
community could enjoy.
With regard to process, Elections Ontario surveyed
organizations representing cultural and religious interests across Ontario
during the period of October 24 to December 15, 2006. We also considered
correspondence sent to us independently from individuals and we posted and
encouraged people to participate on our website.
We directed our survey to 278 organizations. Our contacts
comprised 56 cultural communities in the10 major religious communities. It was
necessary to develop a database of organizations in a manner representative of
Ontario's cultural and religious demographics, and we were guided by
authoritative resources in doing so. Chief among them were Statistics Canada and
Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
We applied parameters in developing the database that, we
believe, ensured a scope that was sufficiently broad without being excessive in
a way that places this work outside the mandate and domain of the Office of the
Chief Election Officer. We referred to a range of authoritative resources. The
crossover between cultural and religious communities provided additional
assurance of coverage.
We received 89 responses from a wide range of
organizations spanning 21 different communities. Many were from the Christian,
Muslim and Jewish communities as these communities will observe dates of
significance during the period we were examining. We also considered
correspondence sent to us independently from individuals.
We distributed a mail survey and posted it on our website.
We asked people to respond to two questions.
Question 1: During the period
spanning October 4 to October 11, 2007, are there any dates of cultural or
religious significance for your organization and the community it serves?
The respondents were asked to reply either yes or no, and
in the case of yes, to specify.
Question 2: The Election Act
requires 11 consecutive hours for voting. Normally this is between 9 a.m. and 8
p.m. on polling day. Is the nature of these days significant such that your
members would not be able to attend their poll to cast their ballot during these
Again, we requested a response of yes or no, and in the
case of a yes, to specify.
Once we completed the report, it became interesting. I
always thought that Ontario would vote on a Thursday; if October 4 did not work,
we could just move it to October 11. As the administrator, you tend to go in
with the preconception of what could apply as your a fallback. You catch
yourself looking for administrative ease and it just does not always work that
You have to wipe the board clean and really work this out.
I needed to communicate with the people who might have an issue.
The "yes'' answers with specifications were only the
beginning. Once we had those, it was important to contact some of these
respondents to get a better feel for exactly what they were saying and to try to
understand and weigh in its significance.
Then we took a further step. With the "yes'' answers, we
were getting an opinion. We respected that, but we felt it was important look
further within these communities of interest to verify. Consequently, we
contacted academics in the various fields and said, "This is what we are
hearing. Here is how it is playing out in the calendar. What is your expert
Suddenly I was not thinking in terms of will it be this
date or that date. I had no date. The question became what works best for
everyone. I was quite surprised. The last date I thought of was the date I
actually recommended, and I was led to that date by all the information that we
We made the recommendation to the
Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council and, on February 7, they made an order and
adopted Wednesday, October 10, 2007 as the date for our next election date.
I am sure you want me to make a comment on fixed-date
elections. Although I have never run a fixed-date election at the provincial
level, I have run countless at the municipal level. How will it apply in
Ontario? At the provincial level, I believe that it is different. I think your
first inclination is to say that it has to be cheaper, it will be much easier
and you will get a better turnout.
However, I do not believe any of those things to be true.
I believe there are opportunities and I think that the opportunities, if used
correctly, will improve the process. You can make it more accessible; your list
will be better; you will have more polling places because you will have time to
plan it better; and you will deliver it better.
Will more people turn out? I do not believe that any more
or any fewer will show because it is a fixed date. I say that because,
historically, Ontario municipalities with their fixed date are not getting very
high turnouts. The United States, with fixed dates, has probably one the weakest
turnouts on the globe. I cannot say that a fixed date is the cure to voter
1. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,
New York, The Free Press, 1954, p. 47.
Editor's Note: The legislation establishing a fixed
date for federal elections received Royal Assent on May 3, 2007.