With municipal election day set to be held on a religious holiday celebrated by several faiths, some candidates for city council worry it will have a negative impact on voter turnout.
As set by provincial legislation, the municipal election will be held on the fourth Monday of October every four years, which is Oct. 24 this time around. That coincides with Diwali, one of the major festivals for people of Hindu, Jain and Sikh faiths, as well as some Buddhists.
“In an election that is already steeped in equity issues like access to housing, community representation, and transportation infrastructure, this unfortunate timing fits right in,” said Ward 3 councillor candidate Luc Cousineau in an email, noting national laws call for elections to be pushed back a day if they fall on a holiday.
“Unfortunately, and the root of the equity issue of course, is that our recognition of holidays is so deeply rooted in Christian tradition that this doesn’t seem to count,” he continued. “This is, without doubt, an issue of equity and lack of representation in decision-making.”
The date of Diwali – a festival of lights, a moment meant to acknowledge good over evil, light over darkness – is based on the lunar calendar and the specific dates change each year.
GuelphToday reached out to all active mayoral and ward candidates running for city council to garner their perspective of the issue, though many didn’t respond ahead of this article being published.
Some candidates acknowledged the conflict and pointed to advanced voting days as an alternative for prospective voters to head to ballot boxes.
“In my perspective, I am so happy it falls on the auspicious day of Diwali,” said Hitesh Jagad, Ward 4 candidate. “I am all happy about the date and support 24th October, 2022, as Diwali is known as the ‘Festival of Light’ and in my view lets people vote on the day of Diwali to choose their desired candidate who they think is going to bring the light in their life/ward/city.”
“Guelph will be able (to) celebrate both Diwali and democracy,” added Ward 2 candidate Billy Cottrell.
Others, however, are calling for change.
“Yes, advance voting exists, but most people vote on election day and creating a barrier to voting by holding the election on a major holiday is disappointing,” said Chetna Robinson, candidate for Ward 6. “It would be a simple fix to change the election date to ensure equitable and fair access for all citizens. Words about diversity ring hollow if they are not put into practice and we all lose when diversity is not prioritized.
“I shouldn't have to pick between my culture and my civic duty, nor should anyone.”
“This kind of error really should not happen,” added Ward 3 candidate Kevin Bowman. “I suspect it is too late to change the date now but I am somewhat comforted that Guelph has six days of advance polls.”
The conflict could lead to low voter turnout, noted Leanne Caron, candidate for Ward 5.
“It's already dismally low, let's not make it worse,” she said. “I support moving election day to October 25th, or another date during that week to include as many residents as possible in our municipal elections.”
Mayoral candidate Danny Drew referred to the conflict as “quite an oversight.”
“I'm sure (the province) considered culturally hegemonic holidays like Christmas and Easter in choosing the placement of the municipal election day,” he said. The demographic of people that celebrate Diwali is by no means small. It's also generally advisable to incorporate a bit of contingency into plans.”
Advanced voting days in Guelph are Oct. 8 to 10 and 14 to 16, states a post on the city’s website. On those days eligible voters can cast a ballot at any one of several locations regardless of which ward they live in.
Mail-in ballots are also available for approved voters.
“I support a person’s right to practice their faith. I hope that the advance polls will provide an appropriate alternative voting time for those who wish to celebrate this five day festival,” said Ward 3 candidate Phil Allt, noting he has not been approached by anyone with concerns about election day coinciding with Diwali.
“As we become much more aware of significant cultural or religious dates, it’s something the province should be much more mindful of,” stated mayoral candidate Cam Guthrie. “In Guelph we’ve already started to amend our council meeting schedules to honour such significant dates that we know may conflict.”