Elections Canada says measures will be in place to protect the health and safety of Canadians should an election be forthcoming, but it also sees challenges ahead, including the need to identify voting locations and recruitment of staff.
The prospect of a fall election triggered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the subject of much anticipation in Ottawa. There is speculation that campaigning could be under way by August, and will coincide with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases this autumn.
On Friday, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Theresa Tam said the country may be at the beginning of a fourth wave of the virus, driven by the Delta variant. The trajectory will depend on increases in the number of Canadians who are fully vaccinated, she added.
Elections Canada anticipates that the majority of voters will cast their ballots in person, either in advance polls or on election day, but says protocols will be in place no matter the method.
Spokesperson Matthew McKenna said voting through a special ballot, which is already permitted, offers flexibility for voters. Since it allows voting either by mail or at a local Elections Canada office, it could be option for those who may be away during advance polls or on election day, as well as vulnerable populations or those in self-isolation because of COVID-19.
The agency expects that between four to five million electors may choose to vote by mail, he said, noting this number is expected to lower as the health situation evolves.
Federal elections typically require nearly 18,000 voting locations. Work has begun to identify polling stations that could facilitate physical distancing, Mr. McKenna said, adding that Elections Canada expects that recruiting staff to run them to be a bigger challenge than usual. The agency has engaged all provincial health authorities, who have reviewed its health and safety plans, he said.
In February, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he was opposed to the idea of schools being used as polling stations last spring after Elections Canada reached out to him.
Andrea Slobodian, a spokesperson for the provincial government, said allowing unimpeded access to schools as students return in the fall “remains a concern in the speculation of a federal election.”
Elections Canada’s current plan in Manitoba is to include community centres, recreation centres, legion halls, fire halls, municipal halls, First Nations band offices or community buildings, apartment building lobbies, hotel conference rooms, sports facilities, restaurants, theatres, golf clubs and vacant retail spaces.
Jean-Sébastien Comeau, a spokesperson for federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, said Elections Canada has a mandate to run a safe and secure election and it will do just that.
He referenced a piece of legislation sponsored by Mr. LeBlanc, C-19, which was introduced in December in an effort to ensure the agency was prepared for all scenarios. It proposed measures including an expanded polling period to help facilitate physical distancing at polling stations, with eight hours of voting on Saturday and Sunday, and 12 hours of voting on election Monday. It also included a 13-day period prior to the beginning of polling to facilitate voting in long-term care facilities and environments where persons with disabilities reside.
The bill was not passed before the summer break of the House of Commons, with Mr. Comeau citing “obstruction from Conservatives” on several pieces of legislation. The Conservatives declined to comment.
MP Daniel Blaikie, the NDP critic for democratic reform, said C-19 would have made it easier for Canadians to feel safer voting – but that it’s important to recall that the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee studied what a COVID-19 election could look like and recommended that one not be called during a pandemic unless the Prime Minister lost a vote of confidence.
While it is positive that people are feeling more optimistic, the country is not out of the woods yet, he added.
Mr. Blaikie said it is important that the election is not only safe from a public-health point of view, but that there is also enough voter turnout for Canadians to feel it is a legitimate result. It would have been better, he said, if Parliament could have given clearer direction to Elections Canada through the passage of C-19.
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