COVID-19 is already having an impact on how we do politics

Are election campaigns worth the public health risk?

Fears of spreading the virus are raising doubts that campaigning is worth the risk

Political rallies by U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have been cancelled in the United States due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. (Mary Schwalm / Associated Press)

What happens when an election campaign becomes a public health risk?

Politics eventually inserts itself into everything — even global pandemics. But public health concerns are now starting to insert themselves into politics.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to cancel a meeting of Canada's premiers when he went into self-isolation. His wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, is awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test after showing symptoms of the disease.

Beyond the administration of the country, concerns over COVID-19 are also affecting how politicians weigh the political risks of campaigning in the midst of a pandemic. The outbreak already has pre-empted one expected election call.

Saskatchewan's fixed election date legislation sets the next vote in the province for Oct. 26, but nothing prevents the premier from moving that date forward. Until today, many in the province were speculating that Premier Scott Moe was planning to do just that — by kicking off an election campaign the day after his government tables its budget on Mar. 18.

Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili has called an early election "irresponsible", saying he "would like to hear why [Moe] thinks he would send people to the polls during a pandemic."

Today, Moe announced that he would not be calling a provincial election this spring in order to focus on "on providing a strong, stable government and addressing the health and economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic."

In New Brunswick, the minority Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Blaine Higgs is on the cusp of defeat. The Liberals plan to vote against the budget tabled earlier this week. If the Greens join them, that could trigger an election.

Green Leader David Coon, however, said that COVID-19 will be a factor in his decision.

"How can it not be? There's got to be an adult in the room on this," Coon said on Monday. "Exactly how do you campaign if you've got an outbreak of coronavirus? How do you have rallies if you've got an outbreak of coronavirus?"

Higgs has asked the Liberals to reconsider bringing down his government. Liberal MLA Roger Melanson says COVID-19 doesn't change the Liberals' position that they have lost confidence in the PC government, but "we leave it up to the experts. We need to hear from them. If it's a concern where elections should not occur, meaning also municipal elections and two byelections, we will listen to that."

A committee of government ministers and party leaders will meet Friday to discuss the province's COVID-19 measures. Coon said the feasibility of an election might be one of the matters under discussion.

Biden, Sanders and Trump cancel rallies

The impact of COVID-19 is already being felt on a few ongoing campaigns.

This week, Higgs finally set the date for two provincial byelections in New Brunswick. The date he chose was June 15 — making for an unusually long byelection campaign. Avoiding an overlap with concurrent municipal elections was one factor, but Higgs said COVID-19 "absolutely played a role" in setting the date and that he has the power to further postpone voting if necessary.

The B.C. Greens, in the midst of a leadership race, have cancelled all in-person public events until further notice. On Thursday, Conservative leadership candidates Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole announced they were suspending all future public campaign events.

U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled some rallies due to public health concerns over the spread of COVID-19. (Doug Mills / Associated Press)

In the United States, former vice-president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders — the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination — and U.S. President Donald Trump have cancelled planned rallies in response to public health concerns.

The U.S. presidential election in November is unlikely to be postponed. Americans don't let much get in the way of democracy. Not even the Civil War prevented Abraham Lincoln from having to fight for re-election in 1864; in fact, the only real difference between that election and his first win four years earlier was that voting took place only in the northern states that hadn't seceded from the Union.

But it does raise the question of whether the Democratic and Republican conventions can go ahead as planned in July and August.

Elections are rarely delayed in Canada

There are very few cases in Canada of events intervening to postpone elections. The First World War delayed a federal election by a year beyond the conventional five-year expiry date, while the Second World War delayed provincial elections in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Campaigns have been run in the midst of global pandemics before. Seven provinces held elections between 1918 and 1920, when the Spanish influenza killed about 55,000 Canadians and tens of millions of people around the world.

Nevertheless, it had an impact on campaigning. The Estevan Progress reported on the low turnout in an October 1918 provincial byelection, saying that "the Influenza epidemic put a damper on election enthusiasm and very few were out working for either side. T. M. Bryce, the Independent candidate, was hustling all day to get in rural voters but in town, there were not half a dozen cars between both sides at work."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau and President of the Treasury Board Jean-Yves Duclos during a news conference on the COVID-19 situation. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

With a minority government in Ottawa, it might only be a matter of time before COVID-19 starts making federal politicians think twice before pushing for partisan gain.

MacKay and O'Toole, the front runners for the Conservative leadership, have both called for an election as soon as possible. They promise to bring forward a motion of non-confidence in Trudeau's government as soon as they become leader. MacKay has demanded an October election.

By then, the spread of COVID-19 might be past its peak and concerns about public health risks might no longer be as high. But if the disease is not contained by then — which is a very real possibility — there will be a political risk in pushing for an election that would send thousands of candidates door-to-door and leaders on cross-country tours.

Maybe politicians could refrain from shaking hands and kissing babies, but that's unlikely to be the only electoral shift to come in the shadow of the novel coronavirus.


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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