Canadians Could Go to the Polls Over A Weekend If Federal Elections Are Held During Pandemic

As our neighbours south of the border begins their federal election process, Canadians may be wondering if Canada would be able to handle running the federal election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Elections Canada, the agency says it would be able to run a general election amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it is anticipating an uptick in mail-in voting and is eyeing updates to federal election laws to allow more flexibility for voters and those running the vote. 

In an update on the agency’s ongoing election readiness planning, the Elections Canada says that to make voting more accessible and safer, the Canada Elections Act could use some amendments. 

Particularly, the federal election agency is suggesting a weekend election that features a two-day polling period on Saturday and Sunday, instead of the traditional one-day vote that is usually held on a Monday. 

The two-day polling period would allow Elections Canada the ability to set up polling places in larger locations that may not be available mid-week, to enhance physical distancing and help with recruiting poll workers. 

Elections Canada says it’s also working on ways to serve voters in long-term care facilities by increasing the number of voting days and tailoring the approach taken to each facility. The agency also is considering means to meet the potential demand for mail-in ballots. 

For example, ballots sent in before the voting deadline could continue to be accepted until the day following the two-day weekend polling period. The agency warns, however, that an increase in mail-in voting could delay the tabulation of results.

The federal elections agency says it intends to make the formal recommendations to Parliament about the legislative changes 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 health and safety of all participants in the electoral process is of paramount importance: this includes electors, thousands of election workers and candidates and their workers,” reads the latest update from the agency.

“As a result, Elections Canada reviewed its procedures and internal capacity in order to prepare for the delivery of an accessible, safe and secure election.”

In an interview, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer Michel Roussel said that ultimately it’s up to parliamentarians to decide whether to support what Elections Canada is planning on proposing, but the agency thinks they are “reasonable” changes.

“We think we have a reasonable proposal. It is very targeted, very focused on things that would allow the election to be conducted in a safer manner for Canadians, it’s not touching anything else. It’s about administering an election in a safe manner during a pandemic,” said the Deputy Chief Electoral Officer.

Given the prospect of a snap election being called as early as this fall, Elections Canada is already working to put in place some interim measures that won’t require parliamentary approval.

Already, Canadian elections law allows for advanced voting, as well as mail-in voting on top of the usual election day option, but how they will be handled should there be a general election while the pandemic is still impacting the country.

In response, a series of administrative changes have already been approved and are now in the process of being implemented.

Some of the measures already in the works by Elections Canada include:

  • Implementing physical distancing and other public health guidelines at polling places and local Elections Canada offices.
  • Buying masks and single-use pencils to be given to voters. Voters also will have the option of bringing their masks, pens or pencils.
  • Changing the agency’s model of operations to reduce the number of workers needed to facilitate physical distancing.
  • Eliminating the Vote on Campus program, since most colleges and universities are delivering programs online.
  • Expanding virtual training for electoral workers to limit the number of in-person interactions.
  • Elections Canada said it is not considering online voting at this time.

The agency also notes that the more time they have before the next election day comes, the more measures they’ll be able to put in place.

Research Shows Canadians Still Prefer Voting at Polling Stations

According to Elections Canada, the agency says it’s continuing to monitor COVID-19 election planning going on in other countries and by provincial electoral management bodies, to help inform Elections Canada’s readiness planning.

As such the agency has commissioned research into Canadian’s views on going to the polls at a time like this, to assess how voter turnout and interest in certain voting methods may change from elections past.

As of mid-August, Elections Canada says the results indicated that the majority of Canadians would still prefer to vote in-person at a polling station, while nearly 22 percent say they’d prefer to vote by mail.

If that percentage of the 18.4 million registered voters opt to mail in their vote, it would mean around four million mail-in ballots for the next federal election, up from the 49,545 electors who voted by mail in 2019. Of those, 34,142 were international voters. 

With the possibility of a second wave, or other changes in Canada’s epidemic, Elections Canada says it’ll continue to adapt its approach should the situation evolve drastically.

In an “extreme and unexpected case,” based on the advice of public health experts, the Chief Electoral Officer could determine it’s not possible to run an election in one or more electoral districts and recommend that the election be postponed.

That has never happened in Elections Canada’s history.

Conservative MP Michael Chong said Canadians are anxious and concerned about the risk posed by COVID-19 during an election.

“It’s at times of crisis that our democratic values are tested. That’s why it’s important that Elections Canada uphold our democratic values by ensuring the health and safety of Canadians during an election while maintaining confidence in the integrity of the election,” he said in a media statement.

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