Canadians who wear coverings over their faces will not be required to remove them to vote if they swear a special oath to affirm their identity and eligibility, a spokesman for Elections Canada said on Tuesday.
"We offer them a choice," John Enright said of the administrative procedure, which has been in place without incident for the seven federal byelections held since September 2007.
The directive from chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand appears to deviate from the existing Canada Elections Act, which has no requirement for federal voters to show their faces.
"He's simply reminding them of the authority to ensure the eligibility of voters," Enright said of the procedure, while adding people would only be prevented from voting if they refuse to swear the oath after turning down requests to show their faces.
The issue caused a stir last autumn on Parliament Hill ahead of three federal byelections in Quebec.
Last September, Harper accused Elections Canada of subverting the will of Parliament by permitting Muslim women to wear niqabs or burkas while voting, saying it was at odds with federal legislation passed earlier that year.
But at the time, Mayrand countered that the act does not contain an absolute visual recognition requirement, noting that about 80,000 voters cast their ballots by mail in the last federal election.
The Conservatives introduced a bill proposing changes to the act that would require all voters to show their faces at polling stations, but the bill was stalled in Parliament and died when the election was called.
'It's important to know who is really voting': Duceppe
Speaking on Tuesday, Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said his party maintains that allowing veiled voters to cast their ballots was an error.
"It's important to know who is really voting," Duceppe told reporters during a campaign stop in Gatineau, Que. "One way throughout history, was to see the person face to face."
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said his party will respect the ruling of the elections body.
Despite the political uproar, Enright insisted there have been no problems since the directive was implemented.
"Nobody has been turned away from the poll because they refused to remove a face-covering," he said.
Elections Canada states that in order to be eligible to vote in a federal election, a person must be a Canadian citizen 18 years of age or older and fulfil one of the three options:
- Show one original piece of government-issued identification containing one's photo, name and address, such as a driver's licence.
- Show two original pieces of identification authorized by the chief electoral officer. Both must have one's name and one must also have one's address, such as a health card and hydro bill.
- Swear an oath and be vouched for by an elector, such as a neighbour or roommate, who is on the voters list in one's polling division and has an acceptable piece or pieces of identification. The elector who vouches for the person must also swear an oath.