Although Elections Canada has loosened some restrictions, and legislation currently before Parliament would loosen them further still if an election is held during the pandemic, the fact remains that it’s harder to cast a ballot in a Canadian federal election than it is in a presidential election in many U.S. states, even though there is no credible evidence of widespread electoral fraud in either country.
Emergency measures that resulted in the most accessible presidential election in U.S. history last November helped drive turnout to record heights. If Canada wants to increase voter turnout, the answer is simple: Make it easier to vote.
As the U.S. elections approached last year, state governments took extraordinary measures to make it possible for people to vote without having to put their health at risk. Some states sent applications for a mail-in ballot to voters even if they hadn’t requested one. Some even sent the ballots themselves.
Officials set up drop-off boxes in neighbourhoods. In some locations, you could vote without leaving your car. Some states extended early voting days.
Because of the loosened rules, and because then-president Donald Trump was such a divisive candidate, turnout reached 66.3 per cent, the highest level in 120 years. Mr. Biden, a Democrat, won by 4.5 percentage points.
After the election, many Republicans at the state level concluded that wide-open voting could be subject to abuse. They might also have concluded that making it easier to vote helped the Democrats. Many states with Republican legislatures are tightening the rules. The voting restrictions imposed in Georgia earlier this year were so controversial that Major League Baseball moved the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest.
But lost in the shouting was an important point. The new Georgia rules, while more stringent than the ones in place last November, are less stringent than in many other jurisdictions, including Canada.
Under the new Georgia law, people can request a mail-in ballot up to 78 days before election day; in Canada, people can only request what we call a special ballot during the official campaign period, which can be as few as 36 days.
The new Georgia law limits the number and location of drop boxes; Elections Canada does not provide drop boxes at all, although the idea is under consideration. Advance voting takes place over a maximum of five days in Georgia; in Canada, it’s four.
In both Georgia and Canada, officials can send out ballots only to people who request them. In both jurisdictions, people mailing in ballots must include proof of identity.
The big difference is historical rather than statutory. In the Jim Crow era, Southern states enacted laws to prevent Black people from voting. Canadian elections have no such history, although First Nations did not obtain the right to vote until 1960.
Also, the Georgia law allows state officials and the legislature to intervene in elections, whereas the independence of Elections Canada is sacrosanct.
Elections Canada is making voting by special ballot easier by allowing people to register online. And the legislation Parliament is currently debating would expand the voting period during a pandemic.
But why not go further? Why not emulate the U.S. example and make voting by mail even easier? Why not expand the number of early voting and voting days?
In pandemic hot spots, mobile clinics go into workplaces and neighbourhoods to encourage at-risk groups to be vaccinated. Why not apply that principle to voting? Elections Canada goes into long-term care facilities and homeless shelters. Why not expand that outreach by sending mobile polling stations to warehouse and factory floors and to low-income neighbourhoods? Why worry about the remote possibility of voter fraud while ignoring the much greater problem of low turnout? Why not take the polling stations to the people rather than waiting for people to come to the polls?
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has mused about possibly making voting mandatory. But first, let’s try making voting stupidly easy. Parliament should give Elections Canada a new mandate: Get out there and hustle for votes. Whatever it takes.
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