Elections Canada looking at how it could run an election during the pandemic

Elections Canada has assembled a working group to study how best to hold a general election in the event the federal minority government falls while the country is still in the grips of the pandemic.

The next fixed election date is in 2023 — but the agency wants to be ready should the government fall early

An Elections Canada sign outside a polling place in downtown Ottawa Oct. 21, 2019. Elections Canada says it's preparing for the possibility that the federal minority government could fall during the pandemic. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Elections Canada has assembled a working group to study how best to hold a general election in the event the federal minority government falls while the country is still in the grips of the pandemic.

The federal agency says the working group will offer options to adapt the current voting system to a pandemic or post-pandemic model to ensure the vote remains "accessible, safe and healthy" for electors and workers — by employing much more voting by mail.

The Canada Elections Act has the next election day already fixed — on or before Oct. 23, 2023 — but the agency said that, "given the current minority government situation, an election could take place at any time."

While Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Thursday "nobody is talking about forcing an election at this time" and insisted he has no plan to bring down Liberal government in the midst of a health crisis, Elections Canada is still preparing for the possibility.

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"As part of its ongoing readiness planning, the agency is working on a new operational approach to deliver an election in the context of a pandemic and post-pandemic," Elections Canada said in a media statement on its website.

In other words, Elections Canada doesn't want to see what happened in Wisconsin happen here. In that U.S. state, thousands of voters had to wait in long lines for hours to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary race and to select a new state Supreme Court justice, despite public health concerns about holding a vote during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ron Rosenberry Chase (left) and Jim O'Donnell protest while wearing masks outside the State Capitol during a special session regarding the spring election in Madison, Wis., Saturday, April 4, 2020. (The Associated Press/Amber Arnold)

Republicans in the state blocked a last-minute request to delay the April 7 election — a decision some critics called an attempt at voter suppression.

While the current Canadian system allows for mail-in ballots, the agency said the system isn't equipped to handle a national vote conducted entirely through the postal service.

"A viable election where all electors vote by mail would require fundamental changes to the Canada Elections Act," the agency said. Elections Canada also said it will look into whether the system can be tweaked in the meantime to allow for more ballots sent through the mail to reduce traffic at polling places.

Some 34,000 ballots were mailed in by eligible Canadian voters living abroad in the last election — a small fraction of the 18.3 million votes cast in October 2019.

Five U.S. states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

All registered voters in those states receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a "secrecy" envelope and then a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the mailing envelope and returns the package through the mail or by dropping it off.

Elections Canada also is looking at how best to implement social distancing measures at polling places. The agency will give the list of past polling station requirements a second look and identify alternatives to locations that may become unavailable due to COVID-19 concerns.

It is reviewing its procurement policy to ensure "the availability and capacity of its many suppliers of goods and services before and during elections."

Elections Canada bought some 257,000 pencils (about 45 km of them, if laid end-to-end), printed some 35,000,000 ballots and purchased 240,000 voting signs for polling places for the last election. These items may be more difficult to track down with businesses closed during a pandemic.


John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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