Why some Canadian governments might be thinking about early elections — and why that might be a bad idea

There are minority governments in Ottawa and other provincial capitals across the country — but none of them have dared pulled the plug on an election, despite their surging poll numbers. Fear of COVID-19 — and the cautionary tale to the south — could keep it that way.

Despite surging poll numbers, no party running a minority government has called an election. Will that last?

The Conservatives in Ottawa have not threatened to bring down the government, though they have asked for the resignation of both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (pictured) and Finance Minister Bill Morneau over the WE controversy. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Even in the best of times, there's always an element of political risk when a minority government calls a snap election. That risk is exponentially greater in the midst of a pandemic — and yet, some governments across the country may be tempted.

But not one of them has been bold enough to pull the plug yet.

The temptation is understandable. Across the country, parties in power are seeing a surge in support over their handling of the pandemic.

A bump in the polls is often the root cause of early elections. Minority governments tend to end for one of two reasons: a popular governing party believes it can turn a minority into a majority, or the opposition believes an unpopular governing party is ripe for replacement.

Fixed election date laws in most provinces prevent majority governments from cashing in on newfound support. While these laws can be bypassed easily, voter revulsion usually has kept majority governments from trying it.

But these polling surges could make some minority governments think about rolling the dice — unless COVID-19 makes them think twice.

Speculation about the possibility of a late summer election in New Brunswick was feverish just recently. Premier Blaine Higgs has presided over a fragile minority government since 2018. The most recent big survey, conducted by Narrative Research in May, put his Progressive Conservatives 18 percentage points ahead of the opposition Liberals. That's quite a swing from his party's six-point deficit in the popular vote in the last election.

But this week, Higgs voiced some doubts about holding an election in the short term. While he didn't rule one out entirely, he said it wasn't his preference and he acknowledged "there's mixed feelings, because many people would say, 'Is there a need? Is there a bigger concern around the health risks?'"

Asked this week about the possibility of an early election, British Columbia Premier John Horgan said that a vote is "mandated by next October. So, there's an opportunity this fall. There's an opportunity next spring. There's an opportunity next summer.''

It's the first inkling Horgan has given that an election is on his mind.

His statement was denounced by B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson. It also drew fire from B.C. Green Leader Adam Olsen, with whom Horgan's New Democrats have an agreement to keep their government running.

With only a year left before the clock runs out, B.C.'s minority government has been remarkably stable. Most minority governments fall within two years. But Horgan's poll numbers are up significantly. The most recent survey by EKOS Research puts the gap between the NDP and the Liberals at 17 points — enough to deliver the widest margin of victory of any B.C. election since 2001.

B.C. Premier John Horgan has presided over a minority government since 2017, but for the first time polls suggest he has a wide lead over his opposition rivals. (Chad Hipolito / Canadian Press)

In Newfoundland and Labrador, an election must be held within a year of a new premier being sworn in. The governing Liberals will name their new leader next month — at which point the clock starts ticking.

But not all minority governments are eyeing the exits. There has been little talk of an early election in Prince Edward Island, where one poll suggests Dennis King's PC government enjoys a 32-point lead over the opposition Greens and Liberals.

In Ottawa, the federal Liberals are still leading in the polls by a significant margin. It is unclear what impact the WE contract controversy will have on Liberal support in the longer term; in the meantime, the opposition Conservatives appear content with extracting their pound of flesh from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

Despite the Liberals' sudden vulnerability, the Conservatives have not threatened to bring down the government (though the Bloc Québécois said on Friday it would try to defeat the government in September if Trudeau and Morneau do not resign). But because of that vulnerability, it appears unlikely the Liberals will take the risk of calling an election on their own — something which seemed plausible (if risky) just a few weeks ago.

COVID-19 makes no exceptions for democracy

There's one very good reason why minority governments — even popular ones — ought to think twice before kicking off an election campaign right now: the global pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people, including nearly 9,000 Canadians.

After dropping to an average of some 270 cases per day in early July from 1,800 or so at its peak in May, the country is now averaging about 500 new cases per day. There have been spikes in Alberta and Saskatchewan and rising trend lines in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

Canadians are increasingly worried about the pandemic. The weekly tracking survey from Léger shows the percentage of Canadians afraid of contracting the disease increased 10 points over the last few weeks to 61 per cent — the highest level since April. The same poll found that 82 per cent of respondents believe there will be a second wave of infections.

Polls suggest Canadians' concerns over COVID-19 are rising again as the number of new cases increases. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

That would make an early election call perilous. The rising caseload — along with the cautionary tale offered by the uncontrolled spread of the disease in the United States — means the political blowback against any party seen as responsible for forcing a dangerous early election could be ruinous.

Risking people's lives for the sake of political gain is something most voters would find appalling. It also would make a four-week campaign unpredictable. The COVID-19 situation in Canada a month ago looked much different than it does now. How it will look in another four weeks is anybody's guess.

That might be enough to hold governing parties back from the brink. Opposition parties also need to be careful not to engineer — or allow themselves to be blamed for — a government's defeat.

That's a particularly acute risk for parties without leaders. The federal Conservatives and Greens, as well as the P.E.I. Liberals and the B.C. Greens, are all in the midst of their own leadership campaigns.

Voting in the time of COVID

Elections officials still have to be prepared for an early election, even if it's not likely to happen.

Canada will get its first taste of pandemic campaigning in Saskatchewan in just a few months. The province is scheduled to hold its fixed-date provincial election on Oct. 26. The province's electoral authority is building up its stocks of masks and hand sanitizer and is planning to implement physical distancing measures in polling places and encourage voters to bring their own pens or pencils.

But it's the situation south of the border which could shape many Canadians' views of what an election looks like in a pandemic climate.

As the number of new cases and deaths continues to rise in the United States, the country is still going ahead with its constitutionally-required election on Nov. 3. It might not go well.

The number of new cases of COVID-19 and associated deaths has risen dramatically in the United States, where U.S. President Donald Trump faces re-election in November. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Most states will allow Americans to vote by mail, but a few states might still require voters to state a reason for requesting a mail-in ballot. Fear of contracting a deadly disease in some of these states will not fit the bill.

Mail-in voting is also not without its issues. Not every voter has equal access to reliable postal service. Voter registration rules will differ from one state to another — unlike federal elections in Canada, U.S. federal elections are run at the state level — and the validation measures for every ballot will not be uniform.

For many Americans, in-person voting will be their best or only option and long lines at a reduced number of polling locations — such as the ones we saw in a few states during the presidential primaries — could discourage turnout.

In a country with a history of legislated attempts to disenfranchise Black and other minority voters, the potential for entire swathes of the electorate to struggle to have their ballots counted is huge.

It also doesn't help that U.S. President Donald Trump has actively tried to undermine the legitimacy of the result in advance, making unfounded claims that mail-in voting will be rife with voter fraud. Complicating things further is the fact that, with so many mail-in ballots to count, the results could be unclear for a few days.

It all could be enough to put any Canadian voter off the idea of an election until the pandemic is well behind us. But the timing of that election could depend in part on whether Canadian politicians believe the rewards might be greater than the risks.


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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