The pandemic election bill is a political football now — and may be unnecessary

C-19, a bill to make holding elections safer during a pandemic, has become a political football — but some of its provisions might do more harm than good.

Elections Canada says it can hold a safe election, with or without C-19 passing

C-19 proposes a series of measures aimed at making holding a federal election during a pandemic safer, but delays have prevented it from being passed. (Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press)

As the pace of vaccinations in Canada accelerates, so too will speculation about a federal election in the late summer or early fall.

An early election call wouldn't leave a lot of time for C-19 to become law. That's the government's bill proposing changes to the Elections Act to make it easier to safely hold an election in a pandemic.

But do we need C-19 to hold a safe election? Would holding one without the law put voters at risk?

Last October, Stéphane Perrault, Canada's chief electoral officer, gave parliamentarians a list of changes Elections Canada wanted to see made to the Elections Act to facilitate holding an election during a pandemic.

His request boiled down to three things: giving him the authority to determine when and how voting could take place in long-term care facilities, giving him more powers to adapt to an emergency situation, and replacing a single day of voting on Monday with two days of voting over a weekend.

A single day of voting means larger crowds in polling stations. That's an obvious source of risk, even with Elections Canada's planned measures related to mask-wearing and physical distancing. But that distancing also becomes problematic on polling day, as keeping everyone spaced apart means fewer polling booths and longer lines, which could discourage voting.

In December, the government responded with C-19. In an emergency, the bill proposes giving the chief electoral officer the power to adapt provisions of the Elections Act, determine how voting can take place in seniors' residences and extend election day to Saturday and Sunday, as well as Monday. There are also provisions for secure drop boxes for mail ballots and measures related to the hours of voting.

But C-19 remains in limbo. It passed second reading last week and is now mired in committee. It's not clear when it will move forward.

In the meantime, Elections Canada has been preparing to hold an election with the rules as they are.

Elections Canada preparing for a pandemic vote

Natasha Gauthier, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, said the agency has been "working with a number of stakeholders, including administrators of seniors' residences and long-term care facilities across the country. Elections Canada is planning to work with those facilities to find voting options that work best for their unique situation."

Elections Canada is also preparing for an influx of requests for mail ballots. It says it has made the online mail ballot application process easier and will be able to handle both ballot requests and counting the ballots themselves.

Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault made a series of requests for changes to the Elections Act at a committee appearance last October, but has not yet been invited to return to the committee to give his views on C-19. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The experience of the few provincial elections held over the past year suggest that more Canadians likely would opt to vote by mail in a federal pandemic election. According to a survey commissioned by Elections Canada in January, 29 per cent of Canadians said they would vote by mail in the next federal election — a huge increase over past elections.

But Elections Canada does not have the authority to change the day of voting, and those who intend to vote in person will still need to be accommodated.

The three-day voting period proposed by C-19 might not actually help matters, however.

Three days better than two? Not necessarily

While parliamentarians might have been trying to be helpful by keeping with Canada's tradition of voting on Mondays, there were good reasons for Perrault to ask for a weekend of voting.

During his appearance before the procedure and house affairs committee (PROC) last year, before C-19 was tabled, Perrault was asked by Liberal MP (now cabinet minister) Omar Alghabra why it would not be preferable to add Saturday and Sunday voting to Monday, rather than replace voting on Monday entirely.

"This is something we have considered," Perrault said, "and decided against because of the difficulty of having the polling location.

"Let's say we get access to a school on the weekend for a particular area. We will not have that school for the Monday, so we will not be able to pursue the voting operations. Then we also face the recruitment challenges of having a very large number of workers available on a Monday."

Recruiting poll workers was already going to be a challenge in a pandemic. Asking them to work for three consecutive days will not make recruitment any easier.

Yukon held a territorial election in April. Voting was a little different than usual, with mask-wearing and barriers separating voters from poll workers. (Mark Kelly / Canadian Press)

The survey commissioned by Elections Canada in January found that, among those who might be interested in working at the polls, the three-day period was the least popular option among all age groups, while working Saturday and Sunday was more popular than working Monday alone.

The survey suggested that a weekend voting period would increase the potential pool of workers significantly — particularly among younger Canadians who normally aren't available on Mondays.

"The key there for me is really to vote on the weekend," Perrault told PROC, "because as long as we're voting on Monday, our basic population for workers is retirees and people who do not have a job, and some students who may be available, but we are quite significantly constrained in who we can hope to recruit when we're voting on Monday."

Perrault also asked that the voting day be reduced from 12 hours to eight hours, including for advance polls. In October, Perrault told PROC that asking poll workers to wear masks and face shields for 12 hours at a time would be very demanding.

C-19 still stipulates that the polls be open for 12 hours.

Delay after delay

Delays in getting the legislation through the House of Commons and debated at committee mean Perrault has not yet been re-invited to PROC to tell MPs what he thinks about C-19.

Perrault initially requested four months' notice for Elections Canada to be ready to run an election under the new provisions he requested. So even if C-19 is passed in the next few weeks, an election before October would be a challenge.

"Elections Canada has been preparing for several months for a potential pandemic election," said Gauthier, "focusing on implementing changes to our processes that are possible under the current legislative framework.

"At this stage, Elections Canada is confident that we could deliver a safe and secure election, whenever an election might take place."

Meanwhile, C-19 has become a bit of a political football — with potentially negative consequences.

Earlier this year, the Conservatives employed procedural tactics in the House to delay debate on C-19 before it finally came up for three hours of debate in March.

It was supposed to come up for debate again at the end of April, but the government bumped it from the agenda in order to get a bill passed to end a port strike in Montreal. Then the budget implementation bill delayed things further.

After the Liberals and New Democrats voted to end debate prematurely, C-19 passed second reading on May 11, receiving all-party support (the exception was Independent MP Derek Sloan).

From there it went to committee, where debate on C-19 is being delayed by a Liberal filibuster of an opposition request to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appear to testify about his decision to prorogue Parliament last summer.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads up a minority government in Ottawa. Federal minority governments last an average of a little less than two years. The two-year anniversary of the 2019 federal election comes in October. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Blame for the delays has been directed at both sides of the aisle — at the Conservatives for delaying debate and at the Liberals now for holding it up at committee.

When elections get political

The result is that C-19 — legislation meant to allow Canada's democracy to be perpetuated safely — has become partisan.

Earlier this month, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc asked whether voters would feel unsafe voting in a pandemic if C-19 is not passed — and suggested the Conservatives might be blocking the bill in the hopes of suppressing the vote to their advantage.

Speaking to iPolitics, Liberal PROC committee member Ryan Turnbull said the opposition members of the committee should move on from their request to hear from Trudeau because "time is running out.

"It is super-important for a safe election process, (but) the opposition parties are playing politics and not protecting democratic institutions."

The opposition is charging that it is inappropriate to hold an election during a pandemic in the first place — which suggests the bill would only make it easier for the Liberals to make a snap election call.

There might be some narrow political advantage to win from assigning blame to an opponent for putting people in danger — but the real risk could be that Canadians conclude voting in a pandemic isn't safe because C-19 has not passed.

This might be a case of the rhetoric going beyond reality. Elections Canada says it can hold a vote safely, with or without C-19, some elements of which might do more harm than good. If the pandemic mercifully recedes over the summer, perhaps the political rhetoric can as well.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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