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Canadians who are considering voting by mail are being urged to request their mail-in ballots as soon as possible, and to ensure they are returned by the time polls close on election day. Late ballots will not be counted.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Elections Canada is bracing for an unusually large number of Canadians to vote by mail in the coming federal election, and says millions of ballots may not be counted until well after the vote on Sept. 20.

Stéphane Perrault, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, gave a public briefing Wednesday on the status of the agency’s preparations for the snap election.

Elections Canada is expecting between two million and five million people to cast ballots by mail, which would be a dramatic jump from the roughly 250,000 who voted by mail in 2019. Pandemic-related reluctance to travel to voting locations is expected to drive the increase. Canadians who are considering this option are being urged to request their mail-in ballots as soon as possible, and to ensure they are returned by the time polls close on election day. Late ballots will not be counted.

How to vote by mail in Canada’s federal election

Voting by mail, using what Elections Canada describes as a “special ballot,” is available to two types of voter: those casting ballots from outside of their home ridings (either because they are travelling in Canada or are abroad), and those voting from home who prefer not to go to a polling place.

Anyone falling into one of those categories can ask Elections Canada to send them a ballot. Ballots cast from outside voters’ home ridings will be processed in Ottawa on election day.

Mail-in ballots cast from within voters’ home ridings will be processed locally in each riding and counted after election day. The results will be released in waves over the following few days. Whether this will create a delay in declaring winners will depend on whether the ballots that aren’t counted on election night are numerous enough to make a difference.

“There’s a fair amount of uncertainty,” Mr. Perrault said. “The margin of victory will be a key factor. If it’s a very tight race and there’s a large number of postal ballots, then it can take a few days to find out who is the actual winner.”

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Running an election requires hiring and training about 250,000 temporary electoral workers to staff polling locations and cover other duties. The agency will be advertising to attract staff. Mr. Perrault made a direct appeal for people to get involved.

He said that while the majority of polling locations used in 2019 should be available again, some sites – such as community centres that are currently being used for vaccinations – are not available. As a result, some voters may discover that their usual polling places have been moved or are in non-traditional locations, such as hotels.

Making adjustments for a snap vote during a pandemic is expected to increase the cost of running the election to a projected $610-million this year, up from just over $500-million in 2019.

Mr. Perrault said election workers will be expected to follow provincial health and safety protocols related to masks and other COVID-19 preventive measures, but it will not be mandatory for them to be vaccinated.

He added that the country currently has high levels of vaccination in the general public.

“These are the same people that you meet every day at the grocery store. The difference is that the polls are a controlled environment where safety measures can be applied more rigorously,” he said. “If you look back at the last 18 months, we’ve had elections in Canada provincially, we’ve had territorial elections. There have been elections around the world. And there have not been outbreaks of COVID as a result of in-person voting.”

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