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Pop Quiz: Where should students be voting?

Image of men counting ballots around a wooden desk.

Counting the ballots in the 1938 by-election in the federal riding of St. Henri in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Camillien Houde, running for the Conservatives, lost to Joseph Arsène Bonnier for the Liberals. Photo by Conrad Poirier.

Just in case you thought the U.S. Republican Party had a monopoly on legislation attempting to suppress minority votes, let me tell you a little story from Canada the magical land of Hyperborea, where politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have clearly been taking lessons from the Great Democracy to the south.

Things started their downhill slide earlier this year, when the current federal government proposed the “Fair Elections Act,” a brilliant exercise in Orwellian naming that, among other things, proposes to remove the possibility of one voter “vouching” for another’s residence on election day in cases where other documentation (such as ID) is insufficient. The head of Elections Canada projects that approximately 100,000 voters who rely on this system (due to not having ID or a permanent address) would be disenfranchised by this move. In a totally unrelated windfall for the Conservatives, these voters just happen to be the sort of people who don’t vote Conservative. Imagine that.

Today’s topic, though, is voting rights in La Belle Province (Quebec, not the fast food chain), where, as in many other aspects of governmental authority, the voting situation is markedly different from the Rest of Canada (ROC). In fact, vouching is already prohibited in Quebec, where the law requires both Photo ID and proof of “domicile” in order to vote. I do not have a problem with this per se, as I think it is reasonable that jurisdictions with substantial self-governing powers (like Quebec) take extra steps to ensure that the citizens voting in regional elections are, in fact, relatively permanent residents of the self-governing area. It is the same consideration that often leads to much more clear-cut electoral controversies in small college towns, where the students substantially outnumber the locals: in both cases transient populations can have undue influence and drown out the voices of those with a more permanent stake.

But heightened scrutiny of voters’ backgrounds also carries with it heightened potential for abuse, especially when statutory definitions are left deliberately vague and up to the interpretation of individual electoral officers, whose decisions are (for all intents and purposes) final. And this is what appears to be happening right now.

The upcoming April 7 election has become more controversial than usual due to the Parti Quebecois’ proposed Charter of Values, which would, if implemented, ban public employees (including health care workers and university employees) from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols including the hijab and the kippah. I wrote about the Charter here on SoD when it was first proposed, and it is essentially guaranteed to become law should the PQ win a majority government. This possibility, along with the somewhat lesser possibility of another independence referendum, has (not unexpectedly) led to a rise in voter participation among opposed demographics, particularly in anglophone and allophone (i.e. speaking a language other than English or French) communities who see it as a violation of minority rights.

This increase in voter participation, particularly among students, has led to concerns of fraud on the part of the Quebec Electoral commissioner and the PQ, who don’t want the election to be “stolen” by thousands out-of-province voters registering just to vote against them. This may sound a little paranoid to non-Tea-Party ears, but it is a conspiracy theory with a long history in Quebec politics: in both independence referenda there were accusations of federalists busing voters in to vote fraudulently against separation, and of course Parizeau’s famous quip in 1995 that the cause was defeated by “money and the ethnic vote.

This does bring me to an important question, though, and that is where students should realistically be considered to be domiciled in terms of electoral registration. Moving to attend university is not the same as moving for a job: there is a fixed term involved (three-to-four years in Quebec), and no guarantee that, at the end of their studies, a student plans to stick around in the area. For a jurisdiction with substantial self-governing authority, there is a legitimate question as to whether or not it is in the best interests of the public at large to allow such students to claim domicile and influence a political future in which they have little-to-no personal stake, and to which they are not likely to contribute as taxpayers.

On the other hand, the the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (like the US Constitution) guarantees freedom of movement and of residency for all citizens, and the statutes regarding domicile fairly clearly state that any citizen residing in the province for six consecutive months without evidence of another primary domicile is to be considered eligible to vote. It is pretty clear that many if not most university students ought to qualify as residents under these terms, especially since student status is not specifically addressed by the law. It seems unreasonable for an electoral official to arbitrarily decide that a student’s primary domicile is their parents’ home, even when they are over the age of majority and maintain their own place of residence.*

The real problem, though, is how to treat graduate students, and especially those in long programs (like PhDs). Unlike undergraduates, PhDs have committed to a substantially longer amount of time in the area, and generally speaking are working at least part-time and contributing to the provincial tax base. They are also no more or less likely to stick around than “native” PhD students: in either case they will be looking at a relatively specialized (and often global) job market. To me, anyway, it seems patently unjust for a citizen who has lived continuously in a province for six years (not months) to bring the requested documentation to the registrar, and then to be denied the right to vote purely on the basis of student status. And yes, this is a thing that happened, and it was caught on tape (recording begins at (1:15).

On the basis of that recording, at least, it certainly sounds as if local electoral officials have received some specific instructions as to the interpretation of “domicile,” and that it should exclude all students without a Quebec medicare card or drivers license (despite alternate forms of ID being expressly permitted by law). Whether such instructions were official or not is anyone’s guess. But what matters in the end is that, regardless of the legality of this practice, there is a 0% chance that any appeal to the provincial electoral board will be settled in time for the complainant to vote.

What do you think? Should students be able to vote wherever they happen to be when the election occurs? Should they be obliged to vote absentee in their parents’ electoral district? Do you think voucher systems are a good idea?

*The argument has been made that since out-of-province students remain the responsibility of their home province in terms of health care, this (in addition to paying out-of-province tuition) means they are not full residents. Normally in-province tuition status is achieved by working for six months while not a student. In all honesty I would be fine with this as a compromise for residency status when it comes to undergraduates, but not graduate students.

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

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Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

1 Comment

  1. March 25, 2014 at 11:44 am —

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