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Voters and the niqab Add to ...

Under mounting intimidation, Quebec's Chief Electoral Officer caved in yesterday and reversed his stand on whether women may wear a Muslim veil when voting in Monday's provincial election. It was a sorry step, and none of those who pressed for the reversal, including Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair and Liberal Premier Jean Charest, should feel good about their part in it.

Marcel Blanchet had told his officials earlier this week to let niqab-wearing women vote even if they don't remove the veil that covers all but their eyes. Mr. Boisclair promptly declared that a PQ government would amend the law to force voters to remove the veil. "I said there is a limit that can't be crossed. We went too far."

He was unmistakably aiming his words at those conservative voters who see him as too much the cosmopolitan Montrealer and who have parked their votes with Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec. He jumped on the suspicious-of-others bandwagon to appease those supporters who see their world changing and think devout Muslims and others are being given too much slack. Unfortunately, he was also encouraging a constituency whose calls to Elections Quebec were so threatening that Mr. Blanchet had to walk around with two bodyguards. It was this backlash -- some vowed to wear masks to vote on Monday as a protest -- that saw Mr. Blanchet buckle and agree that women must remove their veils after all.

None of what Mr. Blanchet had said earlier was radical. He was merely enforcing the rules as they stood. If there had been a problem with voter fraud because women were using the veil as a disguise, that would have argued against the niqab. If everyone voting in Quebec had to present photo identification or be denied a ballot, that would have argued against the niqab. The integrity of the voting system, essential in a democracy, trumps religious observance. If there were a problem, religious adherents would either have to accommodate the universally applied rules or forfeit their franchise.

But there was no problem. Quebec's rules provide for unusual circumstances. A voter must have her name on the list of electors in order to vote. She must present one of five pieces of identification: a health insurance card, a driver's licence, a Canadian passport, a certificate of Indian status or a Canadian Forces ID card. In the absence of those documents -- or if she won't show her face and therefore can't make use of photo ID -- she has two choices. She may state under oath that she is the elector listed and present two documents that together prove her identity; or she may be accompanied by a second person who has the right documentation and can attest to the voter's identity. The rules, devised without reference to the niqab, nonetheless cover the niqab.

Accommodating other faiths and customs is not always easy, and in cases where the request for accommodation goes too far, it is the devout, and not the system, who must be prepared to bend. But this was not such a case. Mr. Blanchet's original directive was sensible and unexceptional. It is disturbing that the hostile reaction forced him to appease the mob.

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