Running an election in a pandemic is complicated — especially when politicians are the ones at risk

What if you held an election and the party leaders themselves weren't allowed to leave the house?

With O'Toole and Blanchet in isolation, leaders need to evaluate their appetite for risk

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is in self-isolation after a member of his staff tested positive for COVID-19. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Across the country, election authorities are making plans to hold mid-pandemic elections while keeping voters safe. But with two federal party leaders now self-isolating after being exposed to COVID-19, just how safe might a campaign be for the politicians doing the campaigning?

New Brunswick just completed a provincial election without major issues related to COVID-19. Saskatchewan is preparing for its scheduled election in October. Elections officials have been focusing primarily on measures to protect voters — things like physical distancing, masks and disinfectant at polling stations, a moratorium on door-to-door canvassing and the end of large rallies.

On Wednesday, as the number of new cases in Canada increased again, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the concerns of those who say holding an election in the middle of a pandemic is reckless.

"I think it's irresponsible to say that an election would be irresponsible," he said. "Our country and our institutions are stronger than that and if there has to be an election, we'll figure it out. I don't think that's what Canadians want, I don't think it's what opposition parties want and it's certainly not what the government wants."

Watch: Prime Minister Trudeau on the prospects for a fall election

Trudeau reacts to the idea of a fall election

2 years ago
Duration 0:37
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians don't want an election this fall.

But the last few days have demonstrated how the best-laid plans of politicians and party strategists can always be upended by COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet announced he would get tested and was self-isolating after his wife, Nancy Déziel, tested positive for the coronavirus. Members of his caucus are also self-isolating after a staff member tested positive.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet is in self-isolation after his wife Nancy Déziel (right) tested positive for COVID-19. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press)

On Wednesday, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole announced that he and his family were self-isolating after a staff member with whom he had travelled tested positive for the disease.

It's now possible that the leaders of the two largest opposition caucuses in the House of Commons will not be in Parliament when the speech from the throne is read next week. They could even miss being there in person for the all-important confidence vote following the speech that could trigger a general election.

MPs have had the capability to address Parliament remotely since the spring, so O'Toole and Blanchet will still have their say.

But what if they'd been diagnosed on the campaign trail?

Two weeks is the length of time recommended by public health authorities for self-isolation after exposure to COVID-19. In a five-week election campaign, two weeks is an eternity.

Politicians: a high-risk population?

Voters might not be the ones we have to worry about. Already, three of the five major party leaders are known to have been near someone with COVID-19 at various points in time. Trudeau self-isolated in March after his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, tested positive.

Politicians travel widely and meet with lots of different people, so perhaps it's not surprising they face a higher risk of exposure. But politicians also haven't always been the best role models when it comes to following public health guidelines.

A member of O'Toole's campaign team posted a photo on social media the day of his leadership victory in Ottawa showing 32 people crowded together for a group photo. Only one person was wearing a mask.

Photo of Erin O'Toole's Conservative leadership campaign team, taken in Ottawa on Aug. 23, 2020. (Sadiq Valliani, Twitter: @SadiqValliani)

Ontario's public health guidelines stipulate a social circle of no more than 10 people, including members of a household. Outside of this circle, people are supposed to practise physical distancing and wear masks.

When New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs strode to the podium on Monday night to celebrate his party's win in the provincial election, he wore only a full face shield. Some health authorities say that a face shield "is not a substitute for wearing a face mask as it does not filter respiratory droplets."

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, with his wife Marcia, after winning the provincial election on Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford defended his recent presence at a crowded outdoor wedding, saying a photo of him without a mask was taken during a brief moment when he stood up.

In June, Trudeau was criticized for attending an anti-racism demonstration in Ottawa. Although he wore a mask, physical distancing was not possible in that setting and the crowd was significantly larger than the provincial limits on outdoor gatherings.

Trudeau also had to defend spending the Easter holiday at the prime minister's official summer residence in Quebec at a time when Ontario residents were being told not to visit their cottages across the river.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer came under fire in July after being spotted maskless at Toronto's Pearson Airport.

This list of Canadian politicians failing to live up to public health guidelines is hardly exhaustive. But aside from a few explanations and mea culpas, there haven't been many consequences — unlike in Ireland, for example, where this kind of thing has resulted in scandal and resignations.

Campaigning in quarantine

There are many public health risks associated with holding an election in the middle of a pandemic. Elections officials will work to mitigate those risks but there is no certainty they will be successful.

New Brunswick pulled off its provincial election without any apparent outbreak; fewer than 10 new cases were confirmed over the course of the campaign. But COVID-19 has been contained in New Brunswick, as it has been in the rest of Atlantic Canada. Since the beginning of the pandemic, New Brunswick has seen fewer cases than Ontario reported in a single day on Wednesday.

Saskatchewan has experienced more spikes in the caseload but Premier Scott Moe is only following his province's legislated electoral schedule. His Saskatchewan Party holds a wide lead in the polls and, barring an upset of historic proportions, is likely to win another majority government next month.

Things are more uncertain in British Columbia, where speculation is rife that Premier John Horgan will soon pull the plug on his minority government ahead of next year's scheduled vote.

B.C. has seen a surge in new cases and hospitalizations are now at their highest level in four months.

There's no way to know how the situation will change over the course of a four- or five-week election campaign. Horgan's New Democrats are well ahead of the B.C. Liberals in the polls; that's unusual for two parties that have had relatively stable support in elections since 2005.

With poll numbers strongly in his favour, many are speculating that B.C. Premier John Horgan will call an early election. (Chad Hipolito / Canadian Press)

A new spike in cases could undermine Horgan's support, making it easier for the other leaders to accuse him of recklessness — an accusation that did not work against Higgs in comparatively tranquil New Brunswick.

No party can plan ahead for a leader being missing from the campaign trail for several weeks during an election campaign.

How do you run a debate when one or more of the leaders is unable to leave home?

How would a federal election campaign function when any politician entering Atlantic Canada has to undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine? And how would long-suffering voters react to a party leader who ignored that rule?

Ottawa's chief medical officer has described how a single case of COVID-19 at a cottage mushroomed into 40 cases across the city. What would happen if a leader's visit to a riding is revealed to be at the root of a new outbreak? An entire region of the country might have to be written off by that party on election night.

The complications and problems involved in running an election during a pandemic are not limited to mask availability, the amount of space available for voting in school gymnasiums or how much sanitizer election authorities can get their hands on.

Political leaders in Ottawa, B.C. and elsewhere in the country mulling an early election call have much to think about. They might want to think about it twice.


  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated MPs had the option of remote electronic voting in the spring. In fact, only the limited number of MPs allowed to attend the House in person were able to vote on legislation. Negotiations are ongoing to allow remote electronic voting this fall. A reference to New Brunswick's election has been clarified to say there were no major issues related to COVID-19; though there were some issues related to accessibility and voters who were wrongly turned away at Mount Allison University, overall, turnout was roughly on par with the last two elections in the province.
    Sep 17, 2020 9:32 AM ET


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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