Voters head to cast their ballot in Canada’s federal election at the Fairbanks Interpretation Centre in Dartmouth, N.S., on October 21, 2019. What happens if Canada’s minority Liberal government is defeated this fall and Elections Canada concludes it can’t safely conduct an election because a second wave of the deadly coronavirus is sweeping the country? THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Voters head to cast their ballot in Canada’s federal election at the Fairbanks Interpretation Centre in Dartmouth, N.S., on October 21, 2019. What happens if Canada’s minority Liberal government is defeated this fall and Elections Canada concludes it can’t safely conduct an election because a second wave of the deadly coronavirus is sweeping the country? THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Parties urged to agree on safe way to hold possible election in pandemic

New Brunswick’s example will doubtless offer some lessons on how to conduct an election safely

What happens if Canada’s minority Liberal government is defeated this fall and Elections Canada concludes it can’t safely conduct an election because a second wave of the deadly coronavirus is sweeping the country?

That worst-case scenario was on the minds of some federal politicians as they watched New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs pull the plug Monday on his minority Conservative government, becoming the first jurisdiction in Canada to send voters to the polls in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Brunswick’s example will doubtless offer some lessons on how to conduct an election safely.

It may also embolden other federal opposition parties to join the Bloc Quebecois in its determination to bring down Justin Trudeau’s government at the first opportunity.

For that matter, it may embolden the prime minister to pull the plug himself.

And it has NDP democratic reform critic Daniel Blaikie appealing to his counterparts in other federal parties to begin discussing now how best to safely conduct a federal election during the pandemic rather than sleepwalk into potential chaos.

“The worst thing would be to get to the point where we’re saying, ‘OK, we’re having an election’ and then having these disputes about the process and having somebody within the political system decide that it’s in their best interests to start assailing the legitimacy of the process that’s already under way,” he said in an interview.

Blaikie pointed to Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated assertions that mail-in ballots will result in rampant voter fraud during November’s U.S. presidential election as something Canada should try to avoid.

“We don’t need a political crisis on top of a public health and economic crisis,” he said.

As part of its preparations for a possible election during the pandemic, Elections Canada has set up an internal working group to assess the agency’s ability to conduct the vote safely – including its capacity to handle mail-in ballots, find alternative polling station locations and keep both voters and poll workers safe.

But there’s only so much Elections Canada can do under current law. In a post on its website about the impact of the pandemic on election planning, the agency notes for instance that Parliament would have to change the Canada Elections Act to allow for an election to be conducted entirely by mail-in ballots.

And it adds this warning: “In an extreme case, based on the advice of public health experts, the chief electoral officer could certify that it has become impracticable for Elections Canada to administer the election in one or more electoral districts and recommend to the governor-in-council (the governor general on the advice of cabinet) that the election writ be withdrawn.

“This has never been done in Elections Canada’s history.”

It’s that warning that particularly worries Blaikie. His worst-case scenario is that the government is defeated or Trudeau chooses to call an election, the governor general duly dissolves Parliament “and then Elections Canada says, ‘We’re actually not sure we can do this.’”

“So then you have a dissolved Parliament, you have an executive with no Parliament to hold it to account and how long does that go on? … If that is a possibility, I think it’s one we should all be very concerned about.”

Back on June 25, Blaikie wrote his counterparts in the other federal parties asking that they work together to find a way to ensure an election can be conducted safely during the pandemic with a process that is “politically legitimate.”

No one has so far responded to his letter.

“I find it kind of shocking that we’ve got people out there talking really strongly about wanting an election and the conditions under which they would precipitate an election when we don’t actually know how to have an election properly right now.”

Higgs predicted Monday that New Brunswick will have little difficulty pulling off a safe election, albeit one in which candidates don’t go door-to-door or hand out pamphlets.

With fewer than 200 cases of COVID-19 and just two deaths since March, New Brunswick has been relatively unscathed by the virus, which has infected more than 122,000 and killed more than 9,000 countrywide. Moreover, the pandemic is in something of a lull at the moment – which may no longer be the case later in the fall when the Trudeau government’s fate could be on the line.

The province’s chief electoral officer, Kim Poffenroth, said her agency has instituted a number of measures to ensure voters’ and electoral workers’ safety. Among them: marking the floors at polling stations to keep voters at least two-meters apart, requiring the use of hand sanitizer when voters enter and exit polling stations, providing disposable masks to electors, requiring workers to wear masks or face shields and hiring additional workers to manage the flow of voters and to clean high-touch surfaces.

As well, she said Elections New Brunswick has cancelled polling stations in long-term care and seniors’ homes and will make it easier for residents in those facilities to vote by mail. It has also stocked up on mail-in ballots.

However, should a second surge of COVID-19 cases erupt before Sept. 14, Poffenroth conceded it could impact voter turnout.

“We may have even greater challenges finding workers to work at the polls and then we may run into problems with the owners of buildings where we’re supposed to have polling locations not wanting us to use those locations.”

But regardless of how difficult it might become to administer the election, Poffenroth has no legal authority to recommend that it be called off – unlike Canada’s chief electoral officer, Stephane Perrault.

“There’s really no playbook for how to do this,” she said. “It’s a learning curve for both ourselves and other election management bodies across the country and we just happen to be the first ones out the gate.”

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

Coronaviruselection

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Thornhill Volunteer Fire Department responded to an engine Dec. 3 on Highway 16, using a compressed air and foam solution to extinguish the flames. (Submitted Photo/Krista Bowman)
Semi truck engine catches fire in Thornhill

Firefighters used a compressed air and foam solution to put out the fire

A volunteer committee is urging the provincial government to complete grizzly habitat mapping. (Ivan Hardwick photo)
Volunteer committee urges province to complete grizzly habitat mapping

Committee says only 18 of 37 watersheds have been mapped, province has spent $500,000 so far

A coal-fired power plant seen through dense smog from the window of an electric bullet train south of Beijing, December 2016. China has continued to increase thermal coal production and power generation, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that are already the world’s largest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
LNG featured at B.C. energy industry, climate change conference

Hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture needed for Canada’s net-zero goal

Terrace RCMP arrested an impaired driver and found illicit drugs, weapons and stolen property in the vehicle on Nov. 28, 2020. (File Photo)
Terrace RCMP arrest impaired driver in possession of weapons

Weapons, illicit drugs, stolen property found in vehicle

A COVID-19 exposure has been recorded at Centennial Christian School in Terrace. The exposure occurred between Nov. 23 and Nov. 26, 2020. (Centennial Christian School Facebook photo)
COVID-19 exposure recorded at Centennial Christian School in Terrace

It’s the first known school exposure in Terrace

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Another 694 diagnosed with COVID-19 in B.C. Thursday

Three more health care outbreaks, 12 deaths

A demonstrator wears representations of sea lice outside the Fisheries and Oceans Canada offices in downtown Vancouver Sept. 24, demanding more action on the Cohen Commission recommendations to protect wild Fraser River sockeye. (Quinn Bender photo)
First Nations renew call to revoke salmon farm licences

Leadership council implores use of precautionary principle in Discovery Islands

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

(Pixabay)
Canadians’ mental health has deteriorated with the second wave, study finds

Increased substance use one of the ways people are coping

An RCMP officer confers with military rescuers outside their Cormorant helicopter near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
Good Samaritan helped Kootenay police nab, rescue suspect which drew armed forces response

Midway RCMP said a Good Samaritan helped track the suspect, then brought the arresting officer dry socks

People line up at a COVID-19 assessment centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Toronto and Peel region continue to be in lockdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 vaccine approval could be days away as pressures mount on health-care system

Many health officials in regions across the country have reported increasing pressures on hospitals

(Needpix.com)
Pandemic has ‘exacerbated’ concerns for B.C. children and youth with special needs: report

Pandemic worsened an already patchwork system, representative says

Most Read