Sask. government gives top electoral official emergency power for fall election
'Election might look a little different,' says Premier Moe
The Saskatchewan government has given the province's top election official expanded emergency powers to conduct this fall's election "safely."
Last Monday, Saskatchewan chief electoral officer Michael Boda sent a letter to Premier Scott Moe with recommendations, one of which was the ability to adjust the electoral process to "reduce risk of COVID-19 and adjust for inefficiencies that come as a result."
Section 7 of the Election Act 1996 does not afford the chief electoral officer powers during a pandemic.
Boda said that if, for example, there needs to be an increase in absentee or mail-in ballots, he would need to adjust the system to secure more of those ballots.
On Wednesday, the government made the change Boda had sought.
"The fall provincial election will go ahead as planned, but it might look a little different," Premier Scott Moe said in a statement.
"The chief electoral officer wanted to make sure that he had the authority to make any changes to the voting process he feels are necessary to ensure a safe and successful election, so the government is strengthening his emergency powers to ensure he has that authority."
Boda said Wednesday that COVID-19 poses challenges to the election process the likes of which he had not seen in two decades working on elections.
"From an operational standpoint, it is my view that Elections Saskatchewan can now proceed with planning for a safe general election on October 26, 2020," Boda said.
"I look forward to continuing to engage with the Legislative Assembly and the Government of Saskatchewan as we move forward with our planning under circumstances that can change often."
Government made changes through regulations
The changes did not require a recalling of the legislature and were made through regulation.
The government said the changes now "clearly define a public health emergency as an emergency under The Elections Act and give the Chief Electoral Officer the power to adapt any provision of the Act as necessary to reduce a health risk to the public."
Boda had asked for the government to make the change in a matter of days.
"You do not turn the system on a dime. An election is not a speedboat, it is like a ship," Boda said last week.
Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili has been asking for a recalling of the legislature to discuss the requests of Elections Saskatchewan, among other issues.
"Allowing the CEO to respond to emergent circumstances during a pandemic is a reasonable and obvious step forward in the current moment. That is not, however, the only change he believes he needs to ensure the provincial election can proceed safely," Meili said Wednesday.
"We agree with the chief electoral officer's recommendation that a bi-partisan committee is needed to make sure these elections are safe, fair, and accessible and are ready and eager to engage in that work."
Other recommendations made by Elections Saskatchewan
Boda ruled out a full mail-in ballot election.
"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.
Boda said about 4,000 people, or one per cent of voters, cast absentee ballots in 2016.
In addition to the change in the Elections Act, Boda recommendations three other actions.
He asked for a committee comprised of house leaders from the government and opposition, and the chief medical health officer, to provide technical advice.
Elections Saskatchewan said more discussions about the potential committee will happen in the coming days.
Boda asked for an expansion in the use of schools and public buildings, including closing schools on election day, Oct. 26.
He also sought the government's help in procuring the necessary personal protective equipment.
There was no update provided by the government as to if Boda's other recommendations will be implemented.
After a few weeks of speculation, Moe put out a statement on March 12 saying there would be no spring election amid concerns over COVID-19.
"Everyone needs to feel safe about going to vote this fall," Moe said on Wednesday.
"That means ensuring good physical distancing practices for both voters and Elections Saskatchewan workers to follow, just like we do now in grocery stores and other public places."
The province also announced it has pushed back resort village elections from July 25 to August 29.
Municipal elections will go ahead on November 9.