House Call with Carol Hughes

Changing the Elections Act for the pandemic

In a minority parliament there will always be speculation on how the next election will be triggered. Scenarios run from governments that engineer their own defeat to those that fall on their best intentions or even by accident. Under normal conditions there isn’t much that is different once the government fails and an election is triggered. That said, our current situation is anything but normal. The pandemic has created new challenges to how we will vote if an election occurs anytime soon.

While there have already been a few successful provincial elections in Canada during the pandemic, the recent experience of Newfoundland and Labrador illustrates how vulnerable the exercise is to the virus. That election was supposed to take place weeks ago but was delayed due to a COVID variant outbreak the day before the vote. The province then cancelled in-person voting and moved to have all voting take place by mail. It remains to be seen how the ballot plays out, but there will be a record low turnout based on ballot requests received. Even if every ballot is cast, the maximum turnout will be 51 percent—a full four points below the lowest ever for the province.

The low turnout may be due to the way the voting option changed mid-stream and is something that will require study since it is difficult to fully understand in real time. Either way, it may have been the final push needed for the government to bring forward their legislation to temporarily amend the Elections Act to include special measures for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposed changes will extend the chief electoral officer’s power to adapt the provisions of the act to ensure the health or safety of electors or election officers. It will allow for the creation of special polling stations inside a single institution where seniors or persons with a disability reside. It will allow voting to take place over a three-day period of a Saturday, Sunday and Monday. There are measures that change when demands for items like documents can be placed on campaigns. The legislation also has measures that allow electors to submit an application for registration and special ballot in writing or in electronic form, outlines provisions for mailing ballots, and includes a sunset clause to undo these changes once they are no longer necessary.
Given the experience of Newfoundland and Labrador along with the uncertain stability of minority governments, it is reasonable to make changes to election laws specifically for the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we need to hold a vote immediately. That’s the message New Democrats are offering as election speculation fever grips Ottawa. We are challenging the government to worry less about their political fortunes until we have vaccinated enough Canadians to make all aspects of our lives safer—not just elections. That’s why we told the government they are going to have to call an election if they really want one.

For their part, the Conservatives say they don’t want an election either, but their actions in parliament don’t make that seem like a solid commitment. They have been taking every opportunity to hold up house business with an erratic procedural strategy that makes it seem they’re itching to go to the polls. While most of parliament is supportive of the NDP call to extend hours so MPs can debate important legislation and make up for time lost to the pandemic, the Conservatives are refusing to agree to the extra work in a move that amounts to a dare for the government to call an election.

No matter how this parliament wraps up, it is in Canada’s best interest that we are prepared for a pandemic election. The Newfoundland and Labrador example is quite instructive, especially with a third wave of COVID expected and the growth of virus variants across the country. If the legislation works through parliament quickly, it will still take 90 more days to come into effect and there are questions that Canada Post must answer before we can confidently say we are better prepared for a pandemic election.