Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on during a childcare funding announcement in Montreal on Aug. 5.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

That’s a lot of tiny pencils.

Elections Canada, the independent agency that oversees federal elections, has ordered 16 million golf pencils to mark ballots in anticipation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling a general election.

Mr. Trudeau is expected to ask the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament in the coming days, foisting a vote on Canadians this fall.

No one is asking for a snap election. But if Mr. Trudeau wants to call one, and jeopardize the health of voters and poll workers for political gain, that’s his prerogative.

It falls to Elections Canada to turn the Prime Minister’s hubris into reality, while keeping Canadians as safe as possible from the surging COVID-19 Delta variant.

Hence all the single-use pencils, just one strategy the agency has been touting to try to reassure people that casting a ballot can be a safe activity this fall.

Four provinces – Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick – have managed to hold general elections during the pandemic. And Nova Scotians go to the polls on Aug. 17.

So it can be done, if that’s what Mr. Trudeau decides is best for him and his party.

But if he’s going to insist on an election, the least he can do is join in the effort to make it as safe as possible. One way to do that is by listening to Election Canada’s plea for a long campaign.

Stéphane Perrault, the chief electoral officer, has repeatedly said that a longer election period – from the time the writ is dropped to voting day – will allow Elections Canada to put in place the safest possible systems and protocols.

Under the Elections Act, campaigns must run a minimum of 36 days and no more than 50 days. It is entirely up to Mr. Trudeau to decide whether or not to give Elections Canada two extra weeks to work with.

He should. Once the vote is called, Elections Canada will face numerous unusual challenges.

One will be finding voting stations. Many of the traditional ones, especially schools, are unlikely to make themselves available in the pandemic.

In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has said he doesn’t want schools used at all, which means Elections Canada could be setting up polls in hotel meeting rooms, theatres, golf clubs and vacant retail spaces, among other places.

It’s also possible that Elections Canada will struggle to find poll workers – a temporary labour force that has traditionally included many seniors. The agency has repeatedly surveyed 3,000 adult Canadians about their attitudes toward voting or working in an election during the pandemic, and fewer than 50 per cent said they were very or somewhat willing to work the polls on election day.

Another issue is the expected high demand for special ballots, which are mailed to voters who request them, and which can be returned by mail or dropped off at a polling station.

The agency’s surveys indicate that close to 30 per cent of respondents say they will likely use special ballots. That could translate into a demand for five million mail-in voting kits – up from just 50,000 in the 2019 election, Mr. Perrault recently said.

There will be a steep learning curve on how to acquire the kits, and how to use them, as they don’t work like a normal ballot. Elections Canada will need as much time as possible to explain the option to voters.

A high demand for the voting kits could also create the unusual situation of the final election results being delayed by days, or even a week, since Elections Canada says mailed ballots won’t be counted until all the regular ballots have been tallied, partly to ensure that no one voted twice.

The bottom line is that Canadians have told Elections Canada in its surveys that they are prepared to vote if they feel safe. In fact, 67.8 per cent said they are certain to vote, under the right conditions.

Achieving that turnout will mean providing thousands of polling places with good ventilation and proper physical distancing, plus plenty of opportunities to cast ballots in advance polls or by mail.

That will require a long campaign. If Mr. Trudeau is going to call an unnecessary vote, the least he can do is give Elections Canada, and Canadian voters, the time and space to respond safely, and in the greatest numbers possible.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe