Elections Canada says it's ready for a COVID-19 campaign, law changes not necessary
OTTAWA -- Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer says that Elections Canada is ready to conduct a pandemic election should one be called at any time, without the need for the federal government to pass its COVID-19-focused elections law changes in Bill C-19.
Testifying before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, which is studying the bill, Stephane Perrault, the head of Elections Canada outlined Tuesday how his agency has taken steps on their own to shore up a snap election should one be called while extra pandemic safety precautions are still needed.
“Over the last year or so we have undertaken extensive readiness activities, not only to prepare for the next election, but also to adjust to the circumstances of the pandemic and ensure that voting can take place safely,” Perrault said in French, adding that his office remains in ongoing discussions with federal, provincial, and Indigenous health authorities to stay on top of the ever-evolving health situation.
Specifically, Perrault said that Elections Canada has already:
- Procured a range of protective equipment and planning infection prevention training, contact tracing, and enforcement measures to ensure safety at polling places for electors and workers at these locations;
- Prepared options for high-risk institutions to select from when it comes to how the vote would be delivered in places like seniors residences and long-term care homes to prevent poll workers from having to enter multiple facilities in a day;
- Increased the capacity to process mail-in ballots, including implementing an online vote-by-mail application system in anticipation that millions of electors would opt to vote by mail; and
- Planned to deploy drop boxes for mail-in ballots inside all polling places to allow any voter who may be cutting it too close to send it by mail an option to still cast their ballot and have it counted.
There will also be capacity limits in place at polling places, reflective of the local restrictions of each jurisdiction. And, while Perrault said that vaccinations won’t be required for workers at polling places, the agency is looking at introducing rapid testing at its main facility and is planning on launching an awareness campaign to make clear to voters what they can expect when they head to the polls.
“All of these measures are possible under the current regime, with some adaptations that I'm empowered to make. With this, Elections Canada is in a relatively good position to administer an election under the current regime, despite the challenges inherent to the pandemic, which is not fully behind us,” Perrault said.
Not only is Bill C-19 not required for certain COVID-19 campaign precautions to be taken, it may further complicate the process, he told MPs, outlining amendments he’d like to see if the bill does advance in the final days of the spring sitting, though it is still several legislative steps away from becoming law.
Bill C-19 was first tabled by the federal government in December 2020 and at the time it was presented as a way to mitigate the challenges that could arise when administering a federal election while the COVID-19 pandemic was surging. Now, as Perrault noted, increasing vaccination rates are pointing to a much-improved environment for a general election to be held.
Coming after watching the U.S. election unfold amid the global health crisis, the bill proposed to allow Canadians to cast their ballots in-person over a three-day polling period spanning a weekend and the following Monday, instead of just the usual 12-hour voting window on election day.
This change was aimed at allowing for physical distancing at polling places and to avoid long lines of voters waiting to cast ballots, however now Perrault is cautioning that a three-day polling period would be more problematic than either opting to do weekend voting alone, or keeping to the single election day.
Perrault said he anticipates there would be an increased risk of labour shortages and a limited number of polling locations that would be available for the full voting period, citing schools and churches as examples.
“This will result in increasing the number of voters per polls and will not facilitate distancing. Fewer polling places will also result in electors having to travel farther than usual to cast their vote, especially in rural areas, where they may have to vote outside of their town, or having to vote in places that may not meet accessibility standards,” he told the committee.
At the time the bill was presented, officials briefing reporters on background about the legislation said that the decision to keep Monday as another day to vote was to recognize that for Canadians who are religiously observant, have childcare needs, or require access to public transit, weekend voting may not be feasible.
OUSTANDING C-19 CHANGES
The already-implemented election readiness changes mirror some of the suggested amendments within Bill C-19, including the measures related to being able to register for a mail-in ballot online and installing drop-boxes.
Among the several other “temporary” changes to the Canada Elections Act the government has proposed in the bill are:
- New offences—a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine of $50,000 or both—for tampering or interfering with these secure drop-off boxes;
- Permitting voters to vote in-person, even if they registered to vote by mail, so long as they either turn back in their mail-in ballot unmarked, or sign an attestation that they have not already submitted it;
- Setting up a system to allow people to receive an online receipt of when their mail-in ballot has been delivered, as well as rules around the deadlines to send in special ballots; and
- Granting new powers for the Chief Electoral Officer to set rules around health and safety of electors and elections workers, including exceptions for extending voting hours in certain ridings if a polling station was interrupted by a pandemic-related emergency.
At the time Bill C-19 was unveiled, federal officials said that they were not anticipating a considerable delay in announcing the results of the election, however, Elections Canada has clarified that there may be delays as it is unable to count advance votes as they come in. The government officials also said that they were not anticipating any specific risk of fraud, should there be a surge in mail-in ballots.
Perrault did speak favourably of having a longer writ period should there be an election held when these pandemic precautions would be required, as that would allow Elections Canada to have a longer runway to get all measures in place.
Testifying before the committee on the bill last week, the minister responsible for the bill, Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc called on MPs to move quickly in studying the legislation. LeBlanc said the Liberals are open to amendments to help ensure the proper mechanisms are in place for Elections Canada before the next election, which has been widely speculated could be called this summer or fall.
During the committee, Conservative MP John Nater said that the committee is “moving heaven and earth,” to try to pass Bill C-19 before the House rises on June 23, though his caucus is still wanting to hear from other stakeholders, including Newfoundland and Labrador’s elections officials, who had the experience of a tumultuous COVID-19 election amid a surge in infections in that province this spring.
Nater asked Perrault what his comfort level would be with conducting a pandemic vote without Bill C-19, and in response, Perrault doubled down in saying Elections Canada is well-positioned to administer a safe and efficient election, but “that doesn’t mean that there will not be challenges.”
“There are always challenges that we will have, and they are even more significant in a pandemic,” said the Elections Canada chief.
NDP MP Daniel Blaikie said that his party’s position is that there would still be merit in passing Bill C-19 as he thinks it would help increase voter confidence and therefore turnout should there be a snap vote.
“If I really felt we weren't going to have an election this summer, and that the prime minister could be trusted to do the right thing, then we wouldn't be on the timeline that I believe we are on, which is trying to get this bill in place before the summer, because I think it's very unlikely that we're coming back in September,” he said, referencing the prospect of MPs being able to pick up on their work on the bill when the House is scheduled to reconvene in the fall, which wouldn’t happen if an election campaign is on.