Pandemic elections: Does U.S. example offer Canada a playbook?
OTTAWA -- While many Canadians are closely watching the never-ending twists and turns of the U.S. presidential race, party officials and elections observers in this country are keeping eyes on the race for other forms of intel: namely, how the campaigns are conducting voter outreach in an era where door knocking and rallies aren’t safe ways to spread your message.
Talk of a snap fall federal election in Canada has ceased, meaning voters aren’t likely to be plunged into a general election anytime soon. Though with a surging wave of new COVID-19 cases the Liberal minority is still not on entirely solid ground as they continue to navigate the country through the ongoing public health emergency.
That means all sides are having to work on their election-readiness plans, and looking to how our American neighbours are navigating questions like, how to get your leader as much public exposure as possible without putting them, and others, at risk? How to structure debates or virtual town halls? Where to deploy campaign resources like volunteers and advertising dollars? And what do to about an influx of mail-in voting and the delayed results that brings with it?
So far, the approaches taken south of the border offer a stark contrast: U.S. President Donald Trump’s back on the campaign trail, planning more big crowd and mask-light Republican campaign events on the heels of a COVID-19 outbreak infecting Trump and many in his inner White House circle. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has opted for a more virtual-focused and modest gathering campaign style that recently enlisted the help of a Canadian gaming company to reach Gen Z and Millennial voters.
“COVID has impacted everything that we're doing, there is no kind of traditional campaigning,” said Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon during a September interview with Politico.
Federal parties on this side of the border say that while yes, how the Democrats and Republicans are responding to these questions provides an example of how to do things should a general election happen here, the Canadian federal political scene is not without examples of its own that may serve to be more realistic dress rehearsals for running a national vote during a global pandemic.
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“We have learned how to campaign in a virtual space,” said newly-named Green Party Leader Annamie Paul during a press conference on Parliament Hill. Paul was elected after a several months-long leadership campaign that was thrown off plan by the pandemic.
Both the Greens and the federal Conservatives have already gotten a taste of what it’s like to run nearly entirely virtual campaigns over the last few months as both parties elected new leaders.
“We’ve got an experienced team now on campaigns during COVID,” said Conservative Party spokesperson Cory Hann in an email to CTVNews.ca. He said that while some of the staff at the national party headquarters will be watching with interest how the U.S. election unfolds, they already know what it’s like to try to engage voters virtually, hold Zoom rallies, and make announcements on Facebook Live.
“We’re going to learn from our own experiences,” Hann said.
As well, those now backing Leader Erin O’Toole have experienced how quickly COVID-19 can catch up with a campaign that’s on the move and pressing the flesh in-person.
On the heels of his leadership win, O’Toole and his wife contracted COVID-19 after one of his staffers who was travelling alongside him during campaign events in Quebec, tested positive.
The rollout of the leadership results, too, served as a lesson for all campaigns using mail-in ballots. The results of the race were significantly delayed due to thousands of ballots being damaged by an envelope opening machine.
The Greens didn’t have the same delays, as their voters were able to cast ballots online.
“We were committed to reaching all of our members. And we did that even with, with travel being impossible during the pandemic,” said Paul, elaborating on the next electoral challenge ahead of her—and the first for some parties in the current COVID-19 context—a pair of federal byelections in Toronto on Oct. 26.
It’s these races—in the Toronto Centre and York Centre ridings— that will offer the Liberals, and New Democrats their first real tests of this new COVID-19 campaigning style. In Toronto Centre, NDP candidate Brian Chang has been hosting and participating in Zoom debates and virtual rallies, including one featuring NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and some local drag performers.
According to the party’s COVID-19 campaigning policy, volunteers are not canvassing door-to-door in this byelection, and any volunteers are provided gloves, masks and hand sanitizer when doing other forms of outreach, like dropping off campaign literature. Any in-person meeting is happening outdoors, with masks on, and includes a contact information gathering requirement as well as the mandatory download and use of the COVID-19 app for anyone doing campaign work.
“In 2020, all politics is digital, and all of the Liberal Party’s work to connect with Canadians has required a new level of grassroots ingenuity to step up our organizing while keeping people safe,” said Liberal Party spokesperson Braeden Caley in a statement to CTVNews.ca about the party’s pandemic campaign plans. He cited examples of organizers making hundreds of thousands of calls to Canadians over the last few months and soliciting fundraising through phone calls and online callouts.
“In our by-election campaigns, we are placing an increased emphasis on mail-in ballots, rolling out innovative virtual events and even using tools like QR codes on literature to help volunteers make meaningful connections with voters from a safe and respectful distance,” Caley said.
Though, some have called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to postpone the byelections as the GTA remains in the midst of a surge of new COVID-19 infections. So far the prime minister has stood by his decision to call the campaigns—something that, by law, had to happen within the next few months—by stating that if the races aren’t held now, there’s a risk the second wave would be even worse come the winter.
"It is reassuring to Canadians to see that their democracies continue to function even in this difficult situation," Trudeau said on Oct. 9.
Cabinet has had the power to withdraw the writ and cancel the vote should Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer determine that administering the election would be impossible to do, but that step has never been taken.
MORE MAIL-IN BALLOTS
For its part, Elections Canada says it has been watching closely what’s happening in the United States and in other countries that have run elections during the pandemic, and the biggest difference is set to be how people cast their ballots with a marked increase in the number of mail-in ballots being requested.
“We are garnering insights in two respects: how that changes the electors’ behavior, and what the impacts on the administration of the polls are,” Deputy Chief Electoral Officer Michel Roussel told CTVNews.ca in an interview.
“We are also keeping in mind the difference between the election laws in the U.S. and in Canada, and the institutional framework in the U.S., which is very different from what we have in Canada, and I think it's important to understand those differences in order to manage Canadians expectations,” Roussel said.
Prior to the pandemic, officials from Elections Canada travelled to the United States to visit states where universal vote-by-mail systems have been up and running for some time, such as Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Since then they’ve watched how voting in the primaries went, and are gearing up to see how the U.S. manages with a surge in mail-in ballots moving through a challenged postal system.
Already, Roussel says the big takeaway is: expect delays. More mail-in ballots, plus longer lines at polling places due to distancing requirements and the time to sanitize between electors will mean it takes longer to cast your vote.
In an effort to offset some of these forecasted challenges, Elections Canada is eyeing updates to federal elections law to allow more flexibility for voters and those running the vote, including big changes around when people cast their ballots.
Roussel, who focuses on operations, electoral readiness and innovation, said the possible surge in mail-in voting would be “transformative” for Elections Canada, but emphasized that counting that many mail-in ballots could take “several days past election day.”
That means that should there be several close races, it won’t be possible to call a winner until all the votes are counted, and in a situation where the election is close, the winning party may not be determined until all ridings are called.
This could be another area where elections officials and political observers here look to what happens in the days following election day in U.S.
Trudeau has already said the government is preparing for “various eventualities.”