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A short snap election would pose voting hurdles, says chief electoral officer


OTTAWA — Canada's chief electoral officer says that in the event of a snap election during the pandemic, Canadians would have better access to the polls with a longer campaign — even though a shorter one appears more likely.

Stéphane Perrault says the time required to send out up to five million mail-in ballots, work with remote communities and install health measures for a countrywide vote amid a deadly second COVID-19 wave demands a longer writ period.

“That is a considerable undertaking," he said, referring just to the mail-in ballots.

But if the Liberal government triggers an election, it would likely result in a shorter campaign so the Grits could seize on their relative popularity, warned Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski.

“If a government chooses to call an election prior to the fixed election date, normally they do so because they are ahead in the polls. And it seems to follow then that if that is the case they would have a shorter rather than a longer writ period to take advantage of their popularity at the time," Lukiwski told Perrault in the House affairs committee Thursday.

A day earlier, political brinkmanship over a parliamentary committee issue came to a head in a confidence vote that could have sparked an election, which was averted when the NDP opposed the Conservative motion that prompted the showdown.

An election amid the pandemic would add at least $50 million in costs for items ranging from masks and hand sanitizer to health-awareness campaigns and prepaid postage, Perrault said.

Returning officers would not have offices, computers or other resources at the start of a snap election, triggering a logistical scramble, Perreault said Thursday.

"You have to find polling locations, you have to find polling workers," he said.

Engaging groups facing systemic challenges such as homeless Canadians and Indigenous communities that have tight travel restrictions would also need more time, he said.

Available locations for polling stations could take longer to track down as some landlords may not want to open their buildings to the public and risk infection, particularly in the case of schools, churches and community facilities that serve vulnerable groups.

Elections Canada continues to brace for an explosive increase in the number of Canadians who vote by mail should the country have an election during the pandemic. 

Public opinion research commissioned by the agency earlier this year suggests one in five voters would prefer to cast their ballots by mail during the pandemic, while 58 per cent would prefer to vote in person at advance or election-day polling stations.

Earlier this month, Perrault asked Parliament to quickly pass a temporary new law to give Elections Canada tools to conduct a federal election safely.

He wants the would-be bill to allow for an election to be held over two weekend days, rather than on the usual Monday.

Perrault has said voting would take longer due to the smaller number of voters and poll workers present at polling stations — both for health reasons and because of potential recruitment issues. Two-thirds of election workers in a typical vote are 60 years of age or older, the most vulnerable age group for the coronavirus.

Perrault also wants the new law to give Elections Canada discretion to decide how to administer the vote safely in long-term care facilities, which have borne the brunt of the more than 9,000 COVID-19 deaths in Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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