Students who come to Quebec to study at universities like McGill - as my brother has done - are in a rather uncomfortable position when it comes to voting in the upcoming provincial election. Whether they will be able to vote at all is not easily determined. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest there is active disenfranchisement. And they are certainly the subject of blatant demagoguery from the PQ that strongly touches on the identity issues present in past Quebec elections.
The issue stems from the the question of what level of evidence is needed to demonstrate that one is a "domicile", a term defined very vaguely but meant as a somewhat stronger condition than simply residing in a place. There has been so much attention drawn to this that Elections Quebec released a clarification on the rules:
The board of revisors has the power to inquire and obtain any information it considers relevant for examination of an application for entry on the list. To do this, it may ask the person to provide additional evidence, including evidence of bank accounts in a Québec banking institution, a Québec health insurance card, a Québec driver’s licence or registration certificate, or an income tax return made in Québec. The board of revisors may also question an elector who makes an application for entry on the list or for a change of domicile.
The more evidence that is provided, the clearer the person’s intention to establish domicile becomes. It is important to note that some specific actions also provide more certain evidence of the person’s intention to establish domicile in Québec than the simple fact of signing a lease. Examples include the fact of paying income tax in Québec or obtaining a Québec driver’s licence.Whatever you think the rules should be, we can probably agree on this: those rules should be clear. Anybody should be able to easily go on the official website and determine for themselves whether they qualify, and know precisely what the minimum number of documents are that they need to bring to demonstrate this eligibility.
These rules simply do not give that level of clarity. Whether one does or does not qualify with a given set of documentation is subject to "interpretation" by the electoral officers. It makes it clear the kinds of documents that can increase the the level of evidence, but there is no explicit statement of the minimum level of evidence required.
When you don't have an objective standard - one that is plainly transparent to everyone - it opens the door for all kinds of disenfranchisement. For instance, an electoral officer who demands a higher level of evidence for someone because they are speaking English than that same officer would demand of someone speaking French. It allows different standards between different people, the targeting of groups (such as McGill students) for extra scrutiny, and so on.
It isn't just a failure of the websites. A PhD student who has been in Quebec for six years recorded his conversation with electoral officer. At no point is it made at all clear precisely what any of these minimal standards are, merely that the officer has unstated "doubts" about his viability for being a domicile and thus rejects it without offering any explanation.
What should the rules be?
Setting aside the issue of needing clear and objective presentation of the rules not subject to local interpretation by individual potentially biased humans, we can ask what the rules ought to be.
When it comes to voting rules, I generally fall on the side that democratic participation should be encouraged, not discouraged, and that we should not put in place strict requirements. In particular, young people such as university students often get their first opportunities to engage in the public discourse and their democracy where they go to university - as McGill students have shown a strong willingness to do. Personally, I would set the rule as a Canadian passport and six months of utilities statements for proof of address.
An identity politics:
Many Quebecors will disagree with me on this. At its core, I think the issue is that they don't want those types of people voting. It is an identity politics: there is Quebec, and there is the rest of Canada.The idea is that if you live in a place as a student, that somehow your view of what happens to that place means less because you have the wrong identity. It is this animosity that leads to statements like the PQ's "“Quebec voters cannot have these elections stolen from them". It is one more example of a frequent theme on this blog: the "us vs them" mentality. Whatever you think about the appropriate rules, McGill students deserve more respect than this.
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