In the weeks prior to Aug. 15, the day Justin Trudeau foisted a snap election on a pandemic-weary nation, Stéphane Perrault, the chief electoral officer, said he hoped the Liberal Leader would make the campaign period as long as possible.
He didn’t. Federal campaigns must by law run a minimum of 36 days and no more than 50 days. Two extra weeks would have been invaluable to Elections Canada’s effort to organize a safe vote, and ensure the highest possible level of voter turnout. But Mr. Trudeau decreed a 36-day campaign – the shortest option. And now the problems Mr. Perrault predicted would result from such a decision are coming to pass.
The biggest one is simple: This time around, there will be fewer places to vote than in 2019. Elections Canada says that, as of Wednesday, it has more than 1,000 fewer regular polling stations (the ones used on election day) than in the 2019 election – a drop of nearly 7 per cent.
The number of actual polls at each regular polling site – the tables where voters are identified and given a ballot – is also down this year, from 64,671 to 63,016.
The number of advance polling places has decreased, too, from 3,802 in 2019 to 3,670, though the total number of polls at each station has at least increased, from 6,166 to 7,265.
As a result, many voters will find that they have to travel farther to vote – whether on the advance polling days of Sept. 10 to 13, or on election day, Sept. 20. And when they get to their polling place, their wait times may be longer, given the lower number of polls.
The drop in the number of places to vote is entirely owing to the pandemic. Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier says the search for suitable sites was hampered by the need to ensure they met distancing requirements.
What’s more, many traditional voting sites, such as schools, aren’t available for pandemic reasons. The Manitoba government barred schools from being used this time around; in other provinces, availability differed from school board to school board.
One knock-on consequence has been a delay in mailing out voter information cards – which can’t be printed and sent until polling sites are confirmed. While not necessary for voting, they let people know where to vote on election day or in advance polls, and can be used as partial ID at the poll.
Mr. Perrault predicted before the election was called that, owing to the pandemic, finding polling stations would be a problem. So, too, he said, would be staffing. Ms. Gauthier says Elections Canada is still looking for workers; it is even increasing pay and offering overtime.
Voter turnout in Canada is a long-standing challenge. In the past two federal elections, only two out of three registered voters bothered to cast ballots – and those were actually higher turnouts compared with previous elections this century.
The best way to raise turnout would be to open far more regular polling stations, and keep them operating for seven days or more, weekends included. This page has long advocated expanding election day into Election Week.
The Liberal government toyed with a mild version of this idea in December, when it tabled a bill that would have spread regular voting over a three-day period during pandemics. But the bill died with the dissolution of Parliament. Mr. Trudeau and his party went from seeing the need for special measures to make this election safe, to handicapping Elections Canada and forcing it to make do with fewer polling stations and polls.
Will the result be lower turnout? Of five provincial pandemic elections, in New Brunswick, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, four saw significant drops in voter participation. Only Nova Scotia saw a slight increase.
As a final complication, there’s voting by mail. This has rarely been used in Canada, but COVID-19 changed that. Elections Canada has to date sent out more than 660,000 mail-in ballots – more than 12 times the number in 2019. And the figure is still rising. The deadline for requesting a mail-in-ballot is Sept. 14.
These ballots won’t even be opened until the day after the election. And counting them, and verifying that a mail-in voter did not also vote in person, will take time. Canadians might not know the outcome of the election for days.
When we said we wanted an election week, that’s not what we meant.
Note to readers: This editorial has been corrected to reflect the fact that advanced polling for the 2021 federal election ends on Sept. 13. Readers can learn more about voting in the election here.
The editorial has also been corrected to reflect the fact that five provinces have held elections during the pandemic.
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