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Canada Proposes Changing Election Law To Prepare For Pandemic Vote

Just in case.
A Canadian flag flies by Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 13, 2020.
A Canadian flag flies by Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 13, 2020.

OTTAWA — The Liberal government tabled legislation Thursday proposing to make temporary changes to the federal elections law to ready Canadians for the possibility of a pandemic vote.

Canada Post projects up to five million people may choose to vote-by-mail in the next federal election, suggesting a significant increase from the 55,000 Canadians voted by mail last year.

The proposed government legislation, dubbed Bill C-19, seeks to expand the mail-in voting system by installing new mail reception boxes at every polling station to collect dropped-off ballots. It also proposes to introduce a three-day weekend polling period to reduce lineups.

This change would have a domino effect, forcing advance polling days to shift to a Thursday-Sunday schedule in the week before the polling period, open for 12 hours daily.

Watch: Liberals table pandemic election bill. Story continues below video.

Sensitive to the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on seniors, a new 13-day polling period is also being proposed. This change to the federal law would allow election officials to bring polling stations to long-term-care homes and residences where people who live with disabilities reside, avoiding disenfranchising residents who may prefer to vote in-person.

Kevin Lamoureux, parliamentary secretary to the and leader of the government in the House of Commons, said the bill is “obviously” a priority.

“We have a very limited timeframe,″ he said in the chamber. “When we can get it through, we’ll get it through.”

Though the thought of a federal election during a pandemic may not excite a majority of Canadians, senior officials in the department of democratic institutions offered a silver lining should one be called. The officials were not authorized to speak publicly on the new legislation.

In a technical briefing for reporters, they emphasized key differences between the Canadian and American voting systems.

Gwinnett County election workers handle electronic ballots as part of the recount for the 2020 presidential election at the Beauty P. Baldwin Voter Registrations and Elections Building on Nov. 16, 2020 in Lawrenceville, Georgia. 
Gwinnett County election workers handle electronic ballots as part of the recount for the 2020 presidential election at the Beauty P. Baldwin Voter Registrations and Elections Building on Nov. 16, 2020 in Lawrenceville, Georgia. 

Elections Canada is the centralized independent agency responsible for overseeing federal elections. The U.S. does not have a centralized agency to administer its general elections, which leaves rules governing how and when the vote is counted to the discretion of state authorities.

Contrary to the multi-day counting of presidential election results in the United States last month, a senior official in the department of democratic institutions said they don’t anticipate a similar long and drawn-out process should the writs be drawn during a pandemic.

Same as in previous elections, voters who wish to mail their ballots must register online and complete an application to receive a voting kit. After marking their ballot, the voter would then place it in the inner envelope of the kit, seal it, and sign the declaration on the outer envelope.

Should the Liberals’ bill become law, Canadians would be able to mail or drop off their ballots at new reception boxes at their polling station.

Election officials can start to verify the outside envelopes of these mail-in and special ballots up to two weeks before voting day.

It is up to the discretion of the chief electoral officer to determine when the count can begin in advance of voting day at the local level.

The temporary changes proposed in Bill C-19 would come into force 90 days after royal assent.

A voter heads to cast their vote in Canada's federal election at the Fairbanks Interpretation Centre in Dartmouth, N.S. on Oct. 21, 2019.
A voter heads to cast their vote in Canada's federal election at the Fairbanks Interpretation Centre in Dartmouth, N.S. on Oct. 21, 2019.

If passed, the changes would also give Elections Canada’s chief electoral officer additional powers to drop the temporary rules “to ensure the safe administration” of an election. But there’s a catch. This call can only be made after consultation with the chief public health officer and only if the pandemic is no longer considered a public health risk.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh responded to the government’s new bill by saying he agrees that public health guidelines need to be incorporated into pandemic election planning — as long as they don’t create barriers to voting.

“We’ve seen the worst case of that in the States where, year after year, the policies have made it harder and harder for people to vote and it’s come to the result that the most vulnerable or marginalized people in society are the ones that are facing the biggest barriers to voting,” Singh said.

“I want to raise that as a red flag.”

With files from Ryan Maloney

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