OTTAWA — A snap election this fall would be “suboptimal” for voters, who would face longer lines with increased wait times and the prospect of delayed results caused by a surge of mail-in ballots, says Elections Canada’s deputy chief electoral officer.
Without up to another seven months to get ready, the agency will have to face the challenge of staging a federal election during the COVID-19 pandemic without all the preparations it wants, Michel Roussel told the Star in a phone interview Thursday. But Elections Canada could still pull it off if the writ drops earlier, he said.
“We are prepared to deliver an election in very difficult circumstances, if that were to be called at the end of September or this fall,” Roussel said.
However, “it would probably be suboptimal from the standpoint of the voters’ experience,” he acknowledged. “The convenience, the accessibility, the quality of the voting experience would not be what they’re used to.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put his minority Liberal government on the line when he prorogued Parliament on Aug. 18, a move that also froze investigations by opposition MPs into the conflict-of-interest controversy involving Toronto’s WE Charity empire. Trudeau justified the move as necessary to allow his government to draft plans for Canada’s recovery from the pandemic in a throne speech scheduled for Sept. 23.
That gives the main opposition parties in the House of Commons a chance to topple the Liberals in a confidence vote, possibly triggering an election — but only if all three of them band together to do so.
Roussel called that possibility the “elephant in the room” as Elections Canada refines its plans to run a national election for 27 million eligible voters across the country. On Thursday, the agency released details on how it plans to stage a general election in the shadow of a second wave of coronavirus infections.
As Roussel explained, the priority for a snap election would be to focus on the health and safety of poll workers and voters. This would be done through the implementation of physical distancing protocols at polling stations, with fewer workers than during a typical election. The agency also plans to stock polling stations with masks and single-use pencils, and establish virtual training for staff to limit person-to-person contact.
Elections Canada also wants to suspend its “vote on campus” services, noting that most colleges and universities are primarily delivering programs online. These changes would lead to longer lineups and wait times at polling stations with fewer election workers to shepherd voters through, Roussel said.
The agency would also like to see changes to the Canada Elections Act that would allow a two-day voting period over a weekend, instead of having a single election day on a Monday. It would also like to give more time for long-term-care residents to vote by allowing polling staff to craft specialized voting plans for each facility, and allow mail-in ballots to be accepted until the day after the two-day weekend voting period.
And since as many as 5 million people would then be expected to mail in their ballots, compared to a typical number of a few hundred thousand, Roussel said it is “very unlikely” that all votes would be counted in a single evening, meaning that some final results would not be available until “a few days” after election night.
But those changes will only be possible if the Liberal government survives the looming confidence vote and Parliament has time to change the law before the next election. And upgrades to the mail-in ballot system that Elections Canada is working on — including by allowing people to register online by uploading documents — won’t be ready until early next year, Roussel said.
“That’s not there in the fall of 2020, which means Canadians who want to vote by mail will have to call their returning officer or fax … This will be an old system that will be in place,” he said, adding that “like any Canadians, we are concerned with turnout” if there is an election during the pandemic this fall.
Then there is the risk of the virus itself. Although it’s never happened, Elections Canada can recommend that elections be cancelled or delayed in certain ridings if it is not “operationally feasible” to hold a vote there, Roussel said. That could happen during the pandemic, if health authorities advise that the virus makes it unsafe to set up centres of congregation like polling stations.