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Election officials prepare for Yukon territorial vote amid pandemic

Yukon's next election must be called this year, and Elections Yukon CEO Max Harvey says he's keeping close watch on Newfoundland and Labrador, where COVID-19 has thrown the provincial election into disarray.

Number of eligible voters has grown since 2016 and Elections Yukon is trying to keep up

Yukon's chief electoral officer Max Harvey says changes in voting registration and procedures could increase voter participation. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Max Harvey is keeping a close eye on the election in Newfoundland and Labrador.

It's not just because Yukon's chief electoral officer is originally from there. It's also because the province's election campaign has been upended by a major outbreak of COVID-19.

While case numbers in the Yukon remain low — the territory currently has just two active cases — Harvey said election officials in the territory have the ability to change voting procedures if needed.

"We would work very, very closely with the chief medical officer of health," Harvey said 

"I would say that any kind of decision to that dramatic kind of change would be in consultation with the chief medical officer and obviously making sure that the political parties and entities are advised of any of the changes."

Harvey said election officials have already started consultations on the various what-ifs that would come up in the event of a major COVID-19 outbreak during the election campaign.

Some provinces have seen major increases in the number of voters casting ballots in advance or by mail-in special ballot. Harvey said Yukon has already made it easier to apply for special ballots online. He's expecting as many as 8,000 people could vote by special ballot this time, compared to around 100 in 2016.

Yukon electorate has grown about 20% since 2016

Yukon's next territorial election must be called by mid-November. So far, Premier Sandy Silver has declined to say when he's planning to call the election, but all three major parties are busy announcing new candidates.

The legislative assembly usually begins its spring sitting during the first week of March and the budget typically takes weeks to be examined and passed by MLAs. But as COVID-19 has already shown, that timeline is not guaranteed.

Harvey said Elections Yukon is aiming to be ready to go by March 15, just in case, and is planning a major push to inform people of the different ways to vote.

One thing Harvey's preparing for is a major increase in the number of eligible voters: approximately 30,000 Yukoners are eligible to cast ballots in 2021, compared to 24,600 in 2016. That has the potential to make election night, whenever it's held, very interesting, as Harvey said most ridings last time around were decided by just a handful of votes.

"Of the [Yukon's] 19 electoral districts, 15 of the 19 were won by less than 100 votes. In 12 of them, less than 50 votes," Harvey said. 

"So it's very, very important to vote."

Written by Chris Windeyer, based on an interview by Elyn Jones

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