In last month's federal election, 3.6 million Canadians – 1.3 million more than in the 2011 election – voted without being fully informed. That's because they took part in advance polls.
Advance polls are more popular than ever, it seems, since the voters are not obliged to produce any justification for casting their ballot ahead of the official voting day. It used to be that you needed a valid reason (a planned trip, a disability, a conflict with a professional commitment, perhaps) to be allowed to vote in advance. Not any more. Voting in an advance poll rather than waiting for the official voting day has become a widespread habit rather than the exception it once was.
For the Oct. 19 election, Elections Canada authorities wanted to encourage the largest possible number of people to vote and to increase the rate of participation – a highly desirable goal, to be sure – and made the advance polls fully accessible. This year, they were open from Oct. 9 to 12, or from 10 to seven days before the official vote was held.
But a week is a long time in politics, especially in an election campaign. Many things can happen that might change a voter's opinion, including dramatic events. What if a party leader were to suddenly fall ill or die? What if a party were hit by a major scandal?
The final week of the campaign was filled with news that could have influenced voters. For example, as the Liberal Party was surging in opinion polls, the co-chair of the party's campaign, Daniel Gagnier, e-mailed several officials at TransCanada Corp., advising them on how to "sell" its proposed Energy East pipeline project to a new government. This blatant conflict of interest was all the more explosive given that Liberal Party officials knew that Mr. Gagnier had been working as a consultant for TransCanada since last spring. Wasn't it obvious that Mr. Gagnier would use his insider knowledge of the Liberal Party's top circles to help his business associates?
This news likely would not have shifted the voting intentions of die-hard Liberals. But it might have caused less-committed citizens (those who value governmental ethics, perhaps, and feared a return to Liberal scandals of years past) to change their voting intentions. But if they had already cast their ballot in an advance poll, it would have been too late to change their mind.
The final week of the campaign was dominated by the controversy about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was bound to have an impact on voters. It might have pushed partisans of free trade toward the Conservatives, while those who oppose the liberalization of markets might have opted for the NDP – the party most strongly opposed to the TPP … unless, of course, these voters had already cast their ballot.
So here's an idea to reconcile the need for more flexible schedules of the vote with the necessity that all citizens be fully informed before they go to the voting booth. Federal elections are held on Mondays, so why not spread the voting times over the preceding weekend? People would have more freedom in allotting their time, and the waiting lines would be reduced. Meanwhile, advance polls would be open to those – and only those – who have valid reasons to vote while the campaign is still going on.
There are places in the world where people are killed for demanding the right to vote. Casting a vote is a privilege and a duty. It is too precious to be trivialized, as if the timing of marking your ballot were no more important than deciding when to go to the supermarket.