Leaders casting out-of-riding votes


It is inevitable that on May 2, the media will be invited to see the party leaders cast ballots at their local polling stations.

The ballot-box photo-op, with thumbs-up and Jack-o-lantern grins, is a long-standing trope of election day coverage.

This election is unusual, however, in that the leaders of two of the largest parties do not actually live in the ridings in which they’ll cast  ballots.

While in Ottawa, both Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff enjoy the hospitality of Canadian taxpayers in the official residences of 24 Sussex and Stornoway, respectively.

And both do maintain residences in their hometowns. True to the demographic stereotypes of each, Harper lives in a new bedroom community in suburban Calgary while Ignatieff maintains a pied-a-terre in swish Yorkville.

According to financial contribution records published by Elections Canada, Harper’s home is in an area around Tuscany Park, which falls within the riding of Calgary West and is represented by fellow Conservative Rob Anders. It is not even adjacent to the Calgary Southwest riding Harper holds in the House of Commons.  (Harper was MP for Calgary West from 1993 to 1997, before he went to work for the National Citizens Coalition.)

Neighbours says Harper, his wife Laureen and kids still frequent the recently-developed area. One reports seeing him stroll down to the Mac’s store with his son to grab a slushy.

Similarly, Ignatieff’s condo near the Hazleton Lanes boutiques falls within Toronto Centre, a riding represented by Liberal Bob Rae.  Property records show he and his wife Zsuzanna Zsohar paid $537,290 for the unit on January 31, 2006 – a week after he was first elected in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. The riding is on the other side of the city, a three or four day drive away, depending on Toronto traffic.

Now, there is no requirement under the Elections Act that a candidate must live in a riding in which he or she runs. But mere mortals cannot vote in a riding unless they can produce proof of residency in one of its polling divisions.

There is, however, a little-known exemption in residency requirements that allow members of parliament and their co-habitants to cast a vote in their ridings.  The catch is that that they must already represent the riding in the House of Commons on the day before the government falls and an election is triggered.

That means that, unless they had secured an address within their respective ridings, neither Harper nor Ignatieff could have voted for themselves when they were first elected in their current ridings (Harper in 2002, after a hiatus from politics, and Ignatieff in 2006, after a hiatus from, well, living in Canada).

But once elected, they can vote in their ridings, or, if the choose, in the ridings where they really live, or in the ridings of their homes in the Ottawa area.

The rule serves three purposes: It allows MPs to continue to vote for themselves if the boundaries of their ridings are redrawn to exclude their homes. It also lets them avoid the cost of owning two homes, should they decided to settle down closer to work in Ottawa.

And, of course, it allows them to avoid the embarrassment of posing for a photo on election day while casting a ballot for someone else.

The unusual provision creates some interesting possibilities.  Instead of voting for himself, Harper could cast one for Rob Anders, whose election is only slightly less certain. Or he could put it behind Conservative long shot Rem Westland, who runs in Ottawa – Vanier, the riding that surrounds 24 Sussex and is, historically, the safest Liberal seat in the country.

With a Rockcliffe address, Ignatieff could also mark his ballot in Ottawa – Vanier for Liberal incumbent Mauril Belanger. Or he could help out his former university roommate and one-time leadership rival Bob Rae.

Or, as expected, he could just vote for himself and smile for the cameras.

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