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An election worker empties ballots from a box at the Multnomah County Elections Division, in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 3, 2020.Paula Bronstein/The Associated Press

If a federal election is held any time soon, five million or more Canadians could vote by mail. The fact that this is not terribly controversial is just wonderful.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw traditional approaches to voting into chaos. How governments have responded says a lot about the political culture of their jurisdictions.

The U.S. presidential election relied heavily on mail-in ballots. Forty-six per cent of voters cast an absentee ballot or voted by mail, with Democrats more likely to vote by mail and Republicans to vote in person. This created a political crisis when the losing Republican candidate, Donald Trump, falsely claimed the vote was rigged.

Republican state legislatures have responded with a raft of bills that, among other restrictions, would severely limit mail-in ballots in future elections. The Republicans say they are protecting election integrity.

This is rot. Study after study after study reveals that voting fraud is extremely rare, and fear of it concocted by Republicans and right-wing media. The Republican bills would suppress the vote among Blacks, Latinos and low-income citizens, who vote mostly for Democrats and like to vote by mail. They are Jim Crow bills.

Nothing like this is happening in Canada. Instead, proposed new federal legislation to protect the safety of voters and election workers if a nationwide vote is called during the pandemic appears to have all-party support.

Along with a three-day rather than one-day polling period, Bill C-19 would permit mail-in ballots. In last fall’s B.C. election, more than 30 per cent of voters cast their ballot by mail.

When COVID-19 infections spiked in Newfoundland and Labrador in February near the end of the provincial campaign, the chief electoral officer controversially extended the campaign period and converted voting to mail-in ballot only.

Memorial University political scientist Amanda Bittner has been critical of how the switch was handled, but she supports mail-in balloting in principle.

“Ensuring a safe and secure mail-in system is quite feasible provided the organization charged with managing the election does its due diligence,” Prof. Bittner said in an e-mail exchange. The ability to vote from home benefits everyone – from people who can’t get away from work, to mothers with young children, to racialized and low-income voters who don’t feel connected to the political system, she said.

Brian Tanguay is a political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in electoral reform. “The pandemic is going to affect behaviour for quite a while,” he said in an interview. Mail-in ballots are “one way to reassure people who might have concerns going out on election day, who might have mobility issues. I think it’s a very good idea.”

He would like to see mail-in ballots become a permanent feature in elections. While fears of hacking have placed online voting out of bounds for now, Prof. Tanguay thinks mail-in ballots are a safe, low-cost way to vote that could increase turnout. “It’s a pretty good idea for improving the function of our democracy.”

As second reading of the federal bill commenced Monday, all the opposition parties appeared prepared to support mail-in voting in principle, though the Conservatives questioned a provision that would count mail-in ballots that arrived the day after polls closed.

Conservative MP Brad Vis said he supports mail-in ballots being counted that are received on or before election day. But “allowing the receipt and counting of ballots after an election day opens our process up to the speculation of electoral fraud and uncertainty,” he told the House, even though all the evidence suggests that those concerns are unfounded.

Despite that reservation, Marilyn Gladu, the party’s critic on the file, said the Conservatives support mail-in balloting, and would even be prepared to consider entrenching the practice in future elections.

“We need to observe that the provisions work the way they were intended, that people continue to have confidence in the process, that it did protect the workers,” she told me. If so, “then those things would be things that we would consider implementing permanently.”

There are divisions in this country based on class, race, language and geography. But when the federal parties are that close to consensus on an issue that is tearing the very fabric of American democracy, it’s a good day on this side of the border.

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