According to Elections Canada, it can run a general election during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is expecting an uptick in mail-in voting when citizens cast their ballots. It is also eyeing updates to federal elections law in enabling more flexibility for voters and those running the vote. In making voting more reachable and safe, the federal elections agency has indicated that the Canada Elections Act could need some amendments.
Rather than the traditional one-day vote that happens on a Monday, Elections Canada has suggested a weekend election, featuring a two-day polling period on a Saturday and Sunday. In enhancing physical distancing and helping with recruiting poll workers, Elections Canada will be able to establish polling places in larger locations that may not be available in mid-week. Elections Canada is expecting Parliament to amend the law to increase the number of voting days for electors in these care homes, because of the high-risk environment that long-term care facilities have proven to be during this pandemic.
Moreover, Elections Canada also wants mail-in ballots allowed to be sent prior to the deadline to be accepted up to when the polls close. The agency indicated that they aim to make formal proposals to Parliament about legislative amendments once the new session begins and after they consult with Canadians, as well as stakeholders such as political parties and the Public Health Agency of Canada. The latest update from the agency reads, “The health and safety of all participants in the electoral process are of paramount importance: this includes electors, thousands of election workers and candidates and their workers.”
Michel Roussel, the Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, in an interview, said that it was up to parliamentarians to choose if to support what Elections Canada is planning on proposing. Still, the agency thinks they are “reasonable” changes. Michel added that they thought they have a reasonable proposal. He said it was very targeted, very focused on things that would allow the election to be conducted more safely for Canadians, and it’s not touching anything else.
CHANGES ALREADY UNDERWAY
The next federal election may be called well in advance of the next scheduled vote in 2022 because of the Liberal minority.
After the reopening of Parliament on Sept. 23, there are a series of key confidence votes slated to happen in the weeks, and there has been talking from some opposition parties who want to bring down the government. Elections Canada has started working to put in place some interim measures that won’t require parliamentary approval, because of the prospect of a snap election being called as early as this fall.
Canadian elections law permits advanced voting and mail-in voting on top of the usual Election Day option. However, should there be a general election during the pandemic; it is not clear how elections will be handled. A series of administrative changes are now in the process of being implemented after been approved.
The new measures are:
Removing the Vote on Campus services, given most colleges and universities are primarily holding courses online at this time;
Reducing the number of workers needed to facilitate physical distancing;
Procuring masks and single-use pencils to be provided to electors to fill out their ballots, while also allowing voters to bring their own mask or pen or pencil;
Increasing the capacity of the existing vote-by-mail system to meet a potential increase in demand;
Implementing physical distancing and other public health guidelines at polling places and Elections Canada offices; and
They are expanding virtual training for electoral workers to limit the number of in-person interactions.
The agency has also indicated that the more time they have before the next Election Day comes, the more measures they will put in place. Roussel, who focuses on operations, electoral readiness, and innovation, stated that the likely increase in mail-in voting would be “transformative” for Elections Canada. However, he stressed that counting numerous mail-in ballots could take “several days past election day.”
That indicates that it won’t be possible to call a winner until all the votes are counted should there be several close races. Also, the winning party may not be determined until all ridings are called, in circumstances where the election is close. After an issue with envelope opening machines slicing through Conservative leadership race ballots caused hours of delay in tabulating the winner, Roussel said that Elections Canada will be testing, and re-testing their devices, which are only used at their headquarters in Ottawa and not at local elections offices.
VIRTUAL VOTING NOT BEING CONSIDERED
Elections Canada says it has not considered introducing internet voting while so many services and day-to-day aspects of Canadians have gone online in the wake of the pandemic. The agency says, “Implementing such a change would require significant planning and testing to ensure that the agency preserves certain aspects of the vote, including confidentiality, secrecy, reliability, and integrity. Given the current operational and time constraints, this option cannot be explored properly at this time”.
POLLING PLACES STILL PREFERRED
To help inform Elections Canada’s readiness planning, the agency is monitoring the going COVID-19 election planning in other nations and by provincial electoral management bodies. In assessing how voter turnout and interest in specific voting methods may change from elections past, it is commissioning the research into Canadian’s views on going to the polls at a time like this. Elections Canada said in mid-August that the results showed that the majority of Canadians would still opt to vote in-person at a polling station.