How going to the polls will be different during a pandemic
OTTAWA -- Elections Canada says it won’t require its polling workers to be fully immunized against COVID-19, but all polling stations will be “highly controlled” with enhanced public safety measures in place.
Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault said on Wednesday that he has consulted widely about the move and continues to seek advice as the pandemic evolves.
“The recommendations do not include mandatory vaccination, whether they be for electors, for workers, or candidate representatives. In the next three weeks or so, poll returning officers will be hiring some 250,000 Canadians to work at the polls to serve approximately 18 million Canadians. These are the same Canadians, these are the same people you meet every day at the grocery store,” said Perrault.
Elections Canada says it will, however, impose additional safety measures at polling stations.
“[Canadians] can expect to see essentially the kind of measures that they now have been seeing for the last 18 months. So, we will have people in charge of ensuring that the place is clean, that the electors are properly distanced. They will see for example these physical transparent barriers that will separate the poll workers,” said Perrault.
Masks will be distributed, hand sanitizer enforced, and disposable pencils required, he added.
The news comes as federal party leaders try to make clear their stance on mandatory vaccinations after the government announced last week that vaccinations would be required of federal workers and most federal industries, as well as commercial air, rail, and cruise ship passengers by the fall.
Since then, debate has erupted around whether a mandatory vaccine policy infringes on individual rights.
Asked whether Elections Canada would refuse a ballot to someone not wearing a mask, Perrault said that if Canadians plan to vote without a mask – unless it is for medical reasons – they should plan to vote by mail.
What about mail-in ballots?
The organization is anticipating a significant increase in mail-in ballots this year compared to last. According to recent surveys, the number of Canadians interested in casting a ballot by mail could be between two and three million, as opposed to approximately 50,000 during the 2019 election.
In anticipation of this, Elections Canada says it has increased the capacity to process mail-in ballots, including implementing an online vote-by-mail application system. This will be a way for those who might be in self-isolation due to COVID-19 to still cast their votes, the agency said.
“All electors who successfully apply will be sent a special ballot voting kit with everything they need to vote. This includes a pre-addressed return envelope with prepaid postage, so there is no cost to electors to return their ballots to us,” said Elections Canada spokesperson Matthew McKenna in an email to CTVNews.ca.
Anyone going this route will also be able to check their status of their application to vote by mail, and see whether or not Elections Canada has received their completed and mailed-back special ballot. Perrault recommended that Canadians who wish to do this to do so early.
“They should leave enough time for their voter kit to get to them and for them to return it to Elections Canada by Election Day,” he said. “For those who are not apply online we will have traditional mail-in forms available.”
Asked how Elections Canada will prevent people who might try to double dip – voting both through mail-in and in-person, Perrault said when an individual opts for postal voting, they are immediately crossed off an official electors list.
“If somebody wishes to vote on polling day and their name is struck they’ll have to explain why and if they’ve lost their ballot, if it’s been misplaced or if they’ve not received it, then they will swear an oath,” he said.
Will there be additional advanced polling days?
There will be four advanced polling days, but no extra in-person days added. While there had been some suggestion of adopting a weekend-long polling period leading up to election day to spread out voters during a pandemic election, that idea didn’t get off the ground after concerns were raised about labour shortages and a limited number of polling locations that would be available for the full voting period, like schools or churches.
Will the location of my polling place be different than it was in 2019?
It’s possible Canadians will be voting in a different location than they have in previous federal elections.
Given the pandemic, Elections Canada says it has faced some challenges in identifying the nearly 18,000 voting locations usually used across the country. They say work is ongoing to nail down which locations will be used as polling places—including potentially renting some spaces. Factoring in the need to keep folks physically distanced, their options are different than in past elections. As a result, “polling places may be in unusual locations or slightly further from electors’ homes,” said McKenna.
Perrault said this is an “unfortunate” reality of hosting the election amid the pandemic.
“We know that some locations will not be the usual ones or may not be accessible so these are unfortunate circumstances but we will do everything we can to make the vote as accessible as possible,” he said.
The location of Canadians’ polling place will be identified on their voter information card, which typically arrives in the mail three weeks before election day.
Could it take longer to count the ballots this time?
Perrault said that it may take a few days longer to count ballots in 2021, but it depends on how many Canadians cast their votes by mail.
“Canadians are used to getting complete results on election night, but it will be different for this election. The count of regular ballots on ordinary polling day and advanced polls will be completed on the night of the election as usual. However, the count of mail-in ballots will start after Election Day," he said.
“It will take longer for returning officers to count those ballots in most locations. This should be done within two days but in some districts, it could take as long as five days depending on the volume and the distribution.”
With files from CTV News' Rachel Aiello.