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Federal Elections to Compete with Churches on Sunday?
Is it fair that Christian worship practices are considerably inconvenienced by the government in favour of proposed changes aimed at bolstering voter turn-out?

T here was a time when it was easier to make decisions on what to do with our Sundays. Those were the days when there was a generally held belief that Sunday was a day of rest. Christians went to church; everyone else had the day off. While we may still have these convictions, it certainly is no longer a reality for most people – especially for low-income earners and students, who may feel they have no option but to use this day like any other. The latest intrusion into what to do on Sunday is coming from the federal government.

...there could be widespread disapproval to this initiative...

To address low voter turnout in recent elections, the federal government has introduced Bill C-16, Expanded Voting Opportunities.  This bill would increase the number of advance polling days by two – both on a Sunday. Currently, federal elections are always held on a Monday. The first additional Sunday advance poll would come a week before the election date, adding to the existing Friday, Saturday and Monday. Advance polls have a limited number of polling stations in each district and are open from noon until 8 p.m.

In a pluralistic society, where the government seeks a broad accommodation of religious interests, adding a Sunday advance poll to the other days seems reasonable. It helps fulfill the government’s goal of increasing voting opportunities, and whether intentional or not, spreads these voting days over the significant Sabbath Day rests for Muslims (Fridays), Jews and Seventh Day Adventists (Saturday), and Christians (Sunday).

The addition of the second advance poll on the Sunday before an election may be more problematic, however, because rather than it being a typical advance poll with limited voting stations in each polling district, this proposed change would include all polling stations, just like Election Day.  The only difference is that the advance poll would be open from 12:00 – 8:00 p.m., rather than a full twelve hours as on Election Day.

A possible effect of this proposed change is that Sunday might become the primary day for voting, possibly even more than the official Monday election day. There would be a full Get Out The Vote (GOTV) effort by political parties, with all the phone calls, emails and other canvassing tactics to make sure people vote.

Some latest statistics show that 32 percent of Canadians, or 11 million people, attend worship at least monthly. Christians, as an identifiable minority in Canada with already established habits and practices on Sundays, are clearly the most affected by this proposed advance poll in Bill C-16 and to a lesser extent, the advance Sunday poll a week before the election. Where there is an element of fairness to the previous advance poll on the week before the election, this proposed new advance poll has a particular effect on an identifiable minority in Canada – Christians. Many Christians still count Sunday as their Sabbath day of rest and a day dedicated to family.

There is the added problem that Elections Canada will be in competition with churches for rental spaces.  Churches that host polling stations in their church halls will be affected (unless the poll is moved elsewhere), and these aren’t the only churches that will be impacted. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand  testified to a parliamentary committee that 11 percent of facilities that Elections Canada rents are in churches or other places of worship.  In countless growing communities across Canada, it is not unusual for a church to rent space in local school gymnasiums or in community halls – the same places where Elections Canada will be vying to rent space for their polling stations. Is it fair that Christians should bear the brunt of these proposed changes and have their regularly established worship patterns disrupted to this great extent?

In a recent informal poll, when asked, “Do you agree that there should be an advance poll with ALL polling stations open on the DAY before a Monday election?” 84 percent of 410 respondents voted “No.” This response indicates that there could be widespread disapproval to this initiative, and rather than strengthening the voting process, it runs the risk of turning more people away.

I believe we would find broad agreement in Canada that voting is important and that providing as many voting opportunities as possible is helpful. Let’s not forget that in every electoral district in Canada, people can already vote on any day of the campaign either by mail or at the office of any returning officer by using a special ballot.

Numerous people have responded to me on this issue, observing that the number of voting opportunities is not the primary problem.  Rather, people’s attitudes – either directed at the government or at the status quo, testify that they are just not interested enough to perform their civic duty. If the government is essentially going to double the cost of Canada’s federal elections (double the cost for rental space and salaries for people operating the polling stations), at a reported extra cost of $34 million for each election, perhaps a good first step might be to spend some of that money on determining why people are not voting, and what the government needs to do to help people become more inclined to vote.

There are too many questions left unanswered as to how to get more people to vote. Ultimately however, the government should not infringe on the worship practices of a substantial religious community when it is not essential to do so.

Douglas Cryer is the Director of Public Policy for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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