Canadians may have to wait a few days for the final results of a federal election called amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s electoral director warns.
And they may find themselves voting in unusual places or having to go a little further to cast their votes.
But Stephane Perrault wants Canadians to know that there is nothing dire about deviations from the norm.
They are part of a process that Elections Canada has devised to ensure that an election can be conducted safely and produce reliable results while the country remains under the control of COVID-19.
“It is important that Canadians understand that this is part of the deliberate election plan that we have taken,” Perrault said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“It is not an accident, it is not a sign that things are going wrong, but in fact it is part of the process that we have designed in these unique circumstances of the pandemic.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to disconnect his liberal minority government later this month for an election in mid to late September. All parties are gearing up for a campaign, even as Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Tam warns that Canada is on the brink of a fourth wave of COVID-19, fueled by the most infectious Delta variant.
In the event of a call for a summer election, Elections Canada is poised for a potentially explosive increase in the number of Canadians choosing to vote by mail during the pandemic: up to five million, compared to less than 50,000 in the elections of 2019.
Perrault said that ballots will not be counted until the day after the election, in order to allow them to be received until the last minute before the polls close and to give election officials time afterward to carefully check to ensure that no one who voted by mail also cast a vote in person.
In the worst case, he said it could take two to five days to complete the mail ballot count.
That could mean that the results of closed races at some circuits will not be immediately known. And, if the national results are tight, it could mean that the overall result (which party wins the most seats, whether it has a minority or a majority) could be equally in limbo.
The final result of a pandemic election could take a few days: electoral director. #CDNPoli # Election # COVID19
But Perrault said the time span is necessary to ensure the integrity of the results.
“As much as we like the first results, I think Canadians hope we do well.”
Mail-in ballots during last fall’s US elections became food for Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that voter fraud robbed him of the presidency. Millions of Republican supporters and conspiracy theorists continue to believe that, undermining the legitimacy of the American electoral process.
But Perrault is hopeful that the vast majority of Canadians will continue to trust the electoral process here. Unlike the United States, he noted that there is no “deep partisan divide” in Canada on the issue of vote by mail.
“All parties see the need to vote by mail, they understand that we have controls in place … People should not expect what happened in the United States to happen in a federal election in Canada.”
Anticipating a dramatic increase in the demand for vote-by-mail, Elections Canada plans to make online application for vote-by-mail kits possible. Voters who fear their mail-in ballots will not be received on time can drop off their ballots at their local polling place on voting day or ask a friend to do so for them.
The names of anyone who receives a mail ballot will be crossed out from the voter rolls as if they had already voted. People who do not receive their ballot in the mail before voting day can take an oath to do so and still vote in person.
However, the mail ballots of anyone who voted in person will not be counted.
Elections Canada still expects the majority of Canadians to choose to vote in person. The agency has stocked up on face masks, disinfectants, single-use pencils, and Plexiglass partitions to ensure the safety of voters and poll workers.
He has also tried to line up possible polling station locations in advance. However, Perrault said he hopes some of the usual polling places, such as schools and recreational facilities, will not want to allow large numbers of voters to enter their buildings during the pandemic.
Consequently, he said that some voters, especially in small communities, may end up going to unusual places like hotels or movie theaters to cast their vote. It may mean that some voters will have to travel further to get to their polling place.
“Some may be suspicious and wonder what is happening and it is important that they understand that nothing dire is happening. We are trying to find the best available locations for them,” he said.
Last summer, Perrault called for legislative changes that, among other things, would allow pandemic elections to take place on two weekend days, instead of the usual Monday.
The Trudeau administration did introduce a bill that incorporated some of Perrault’s recommendations, but it was not passed before the House of Commons broke the summer.
Perrault said his original recommendations were based on the state of the pandemic at the time, when there were no vaccines available and he feared that his regular poll workers, who are typically in their 60s, would not put themselves at risk.
The situation is quite different now, with Canada among the world leaders in vaccination, and Perrault said he is confident that Elections Canada can deliver a safe and fair pandemic election without legislative changes.
Perrault had also wanted the legislative backing of his discretionary authority to allow more flexibility in how votes are cast in vulnerable long-term care facilities. While he didn’t get that in legislation, he said he feels he got all-party backing for his plans in any case.
He also called last summer for an extended campaign period to give Elections Canada more time to implement security measures and process mail-in ballots.
By law, an election period must be set at a minimum of 36 days and no more than 50 days, but it is the prime minister who must determine the exact duration of the campaign within those parameters.
Perrault said Elections Canada is prepared to hold elections regardless of the length of the campaign. Still, he said “there is merit in a longer period,” in giving people more time to vote by mail and in giving the agency more time to recruit workers and find polling places.
This Canadian Press report was first published on August 4, 2021.