Casting a ballot during COVID-19: Elections Sask. seeks support for safe fall vote
Province's top election official says COVID-19 presents 'unique challenges'
Saskatchewan's chief electoral officer is looking for legislative changes, access to personal protective equipment and increased use of schools to safely deliver an election on Oct. 26, the date set for the next provincial election.
On Monday, Michael Boda sent Premier Scott Moe and the House leaders in government and Opposition a set of recommendations on what is needed before people cast their ballots.
"This has to be in the very near future. We are not talking weeks from now, but days from now in order to confirm that I would be getting assistance," Boda told CBC News on Tuesday.
"You do not turn the system on a dime. An election is not a speedboat, it is like a ship."
Boda said the province is required to hold an election no later than April 27, 2021. He said only three times in Canada has a government extend its mandate longer than constitutionally allowed.
"We need some stability in terms of setting out the timing of the election and when it's going to move forward, but there will need to be flexibility as well."
Boda said the flexibility is needed because of the changing dynamic of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan.
He said in his 25 years of experience working on elections around the world, none has faced issues quite like those posed by COVID-19.
"I've dealt with elections in the aftermath of natural disasters, violence, developing democracies where there is a lot of political instability — but COVID-19 presents some particularly unique challenges to conducting this election," he said.
He said his office has been in close contact with provincial Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab on how to conduct a traditional election, but adjusted in order to meet the current health orders.
Increasing use of schools
Boda submitted four recommendations to the government to conduct a safe and successful election.
He said 200 schools were used in 2016 on election day, but he is expecting to need many more this year.
"We have never used schools to the extent we are looking at for an October election. I will be asking for schools to be closed on election day so we can have exclusive access to facilities — gymnasiums in particular," he said.
He said he won't be asking for schools to close over the five days of advanced polling but will need exclusive access to gyms on those days.
Boda said Elections Saskatchewan is used to procuring things like paper to run an election, but has never needed to get personal protective equipment — like face masks and gloves.
He said he needs the government's help to secure the necessary protective equipment and material without taking away from health-care workers.
Boda said he will need legislators to work together to give him the emergency powers to adjust the electoral process in order to "reduce risk of COVID-19 and adjust for inefficiencies that come as a result."
Section 7 of the Election Act does not afford the chief electoral officer powers during a pandemic.
Boda said if, for example, there needs to be an increase in absentee ballots, he would need to adjust the system to secure more of those ballots.
Boda said he would also like to establish an electoral advisory committee that includes him, Dr. Shahab, and elected MLAs, including the two government House leaders.
Boda said his office is "nearly ready" to run a traditional election but requires the changes he has asked for to run it safely as COVID-19 evolves, while following the guidance of Dr. Shahab.
Government pledges support
In a statement to CBC on Tuesday, government House leader Jeremy Harrison said the government had received Boda's report and is reviewing the recommendations.
"We appreciate the direction he has outlined to ensure a safe and successful election this fall," Harrison said.
"We will work to ensure that Elections Saskatchewan has the resources and legal authority necessary to conduct the election safely."
Rethinking, space, procedures and safety
Boda said there are three areas that need to be rethought in organizing the election this fall: facilities, review of procedures and protecting stakeholders.
"We need larger facilities with more space so we can spread out polls and physically distance voters and workers."
On reviewing procedures, Boda said his agency is looking at how items are exchanged on voting day, and how to adjust delivery of ballots for people in hospital or care homes.
Another important aspect being reviewed is absentee ballots or mail-in votes.
Boda said about 4,000 people, or one per cent of voters, cast absentee ballots in 2016.
"A lot of people are seeing [mail-in voting] as a panacea and what I am warning against is that a fully functioning postal ballot is a whole different kind of system. It would take us up to 12 months to implement the new system," he said.
"It doesn't have a lot of capacity right now."
He said in regards to protecting stakeholders, his office will require the use of personal protective equipment and physical distancing to protect 12,000 election workers and 800,000 potential voters, and candidates.
"The average age [of election workers] is over 60. They have a particular challenge in a COVID-19 environment, and we need to change things in order to make it safer for them."
Early election speculation scuttled
In the weeks leading up to the pandemic, Moe was asked if he was considering an early election call in the spring. He did not rule it out.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a global pandemic.
On March 12, Moe put out a statement saying there will be no spring election amid concerns over COVID-19.
"We will remain focused on providing a strong, stable government and addressing the health and economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," Moe said.