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Special ballot officers count special ballots from national, international, Canadian Forces and incarcerated electors at Elections Canada's distribution centre in Ottawa on election night of the 44th Canadian general election, on Sept. 20, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Voters turned up at the ballot box at the lowest rate in more than a decade to participate in a snap federal election held during the fourth wave of the pandemic, according to preliminary data from Elections Canada.

Across the country, turnout was at least 59 per cent. That figure will change as Elections Canada verifies roughly a million ballots cast by mail. The agency will also be counting ballots by those who were not registered but showed up at a polling station. Both those totals are not yet known.

In 2019, 67 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot. When Justin Trudeau swept to power with his Liberal Party in 2015, 68.3 per cent of registered voters turned out at the polls.

Canada 2021 federal election results by riding

Richard Johnston, a University of B.C. professor emeritus who has studied Canadian elections for five decades, expected this drop in enthusiasm and chalked it up to the anxiety and safety concerns brought on by the pandemic. But he also blamed the waning star power that Mr. Trudeau harnessed to bring out more voters in his first two elections.

“He used up a lot of that capital by 2019 and his cynicism of calling an opportunistic re-election – with no reason to do so – just put a lot of people off,” Dr. Johnston said.

Turnout dropped significantly after the 1988 election. Before that, 75 per cent of voters routinely cast a ballot.

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New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters Tuesday in Vancouver that he was troubled with the apparent lack of interest in this election, but blamed Mr. Trudeau for calling an election that put pressure on Elections Canada to scramble to make voting more accessible.

“This is the lowest turnout despite one of the biggest crises we’ve ever faced,” Mr. Singh said.

The NDP Leader said he was disappointed with the difficulties students faced in voting, with people waiting in the dark under a downtown Toronto highway to cast a ballot and with complaints from Indigenous communities that they did not have access to a polling station on election day.

“We pride ourselves on being a democracy. We want to make it easy for people to vote. And what we saw was not that,” he said.

Matthew McKenna, a spokesman for Elections Canada, acknowledged that the agency faced some problems in ensuring voters were able to cast their ballots easily.

“We know we did not meet all voters expectations in terms of accessibility to the vote, and that many voters in urban ridings waited patiently to cast their vote. Our poll workers did everything they could in challenging circumstances to ensure a safe voting process,” Mr. McKenna said in an e-mail.

He also said that Elections Canada was reluctantly unable to operate its Vote on Campus program, which made things more complicated for students who had to cast their ballots at off-campus polling stations.

Meanwhile, the agency is still counting mail-in ballots across the country – a process that could see some of the 26 close races remain unresolved for days.

Staff in large, centralized counting facilities have already tallied votes that arrived from Canadian Forces members, incarcerated voters and Canadians abroad. However, mail-in votes from within ridings still needed to be verified. That work began Tuesday morning in local riding offices.

Elections Canada staff must go through each ballot to make sure there are no duplicates and that it doesn’t belong to someone who also voted in person. Officials must also verify voters’ signatures before a ballot can be counted.

In ridings where people opted to vote by mail-in ballot in large numbers, staff may not be able to start actually counting the votes until Wednesday and may have to continue for several days.

That could leave several ridings in tight races without an elected member of Parliament until Thursday or even Friday.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Liberal incumbent Terry Sheehan leads Conservative challenger Sonny Spina by a few dozen votes. But there are 1,660 votes still to be counted in that riding. Ontario has the highest share of races that could be decided by mail-in ballots, with nine riding results still outstanding.

British Columbia had the greatest number of mail-in ballots, which has left four ridings waiting for their results.

Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May won her seat, but the party’s second seat in the province, in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, remains too close to call between the Liberals and the NDP.

The other three B.C. ridings without a winner yet were Vancouver-Granville, Richmond Centre and West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast.

In Vancouver-Granville, once held by retiring Independent Jody Wilson-Raybould, Liberal candidate Taleeb Noormohamed and NDP candidate Anjali Appadurai were neck and neck Tuesday afternoon.

In Edmonton Centre, the Liberals are still hoping to win back their foothold in Alberta’s capital after Randy Boissonneault was voted out in 2019. Latest results show Mr. Boissonnault 136 votes ahead of Conservative incumbent James Cumming, with 2,241 votes still to be verified and counted.

Elections Canada plans to post updates of its progress counting mail-in ballots on its website so people can get a sense of how close they are to the finish line of some of these long races.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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