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Coronavirus: Canada’s top election official seeks COVID-19 rule changes for general elections

Canada's Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perreault testifies Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020 at a House of Commons committee. Perreault asked legislators to change federal law for an election in a time of pandemic.
Canada's Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perreault testifies Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020 at a House of Commons committee. Perreault asked legislators to change federal law for an election in a time of pandemic. Global News

Canada’s top election official is asking the federal government to tweak elections laws so that Canadians could safely go to the polls in a time of pandemic and so that votes could be safely and securely cast using alternative methods.

Stephane Perreault, the country’s chief electoral officer, told a House of Commons committee Thursday that he wants Parliament to change the voting day for a general election from one 12-hour period on a Monday to two eight-hour periods of voting on a Saturday and Sunday.

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“This would allow for a steadier flow of electors over two weekend days, encouraging physical distancing, as opposed to the clustering of electors that takes place at the polls at the start and finish of a Monday workday,” Perreault told members of the Commons’ Procedure and House Affairs Committee.

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Perreault also seeks legislative authority to provide “tailored” election services for voters who are residents of long-term care facilities and for the flexibility to adjust election procedures as he sees fit to respond to an emergency.

Finally, he wants Parliament to approve his request that mail-in ballots would still be counted if they were received after election day so long as the ballots were post-marked before election day.

He also said that he would expect millions of Canadians to vote by mail in a general election held in a time of pandemic and, while he has no concerns about the safety or security of mail-in ballots, he conceded that the results of such an election may not be known for a few days.

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In response to a query from Conservative MP Todd Doherty, Perreault said that, had the government fallen on a confidence vote this week, he was confident Elections Canada would have “delivered” a safe, secure election, though he conceded it would have been an operational challenge.

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Under current law, federal election campaigns must run from 37 to 51 days. It is up to the prime minister of the day to decide how long the election campaign will run.

Perreault said that, if there is to be an election during the pandemic, the government of the day should pick a 51-day campaign.

“I strongly encourage the government to set the longest possible election period,” Perreault said.

Perreault said a longer campaign will not only help Elections Canada properly prepare for new procedures that may be required to keep poll workers and voters safe during a pandemic but it will also help with an anticipated surge in mail-in ballots.

In the 2019 general election, only about 5,500 Canadians voted by mail from within their own ridings, part of an overall total of about 50,000 who used the vote-by-mail process. Perreault told MPs Thursday that according to surveys Elections Canada has recently done, it would expect that as many a 4 million Canadians would choose to vote by mail if an election were held today.

As a point of comparison, Saskatchewan’s chief electoral officer Michael Boda told reporters Thursday that in that provinces’ general election in 2016, just 4,400 voted by mail. But in the current general election in Saskatchewan — election day is Monday — the province has mailed out more than 61,000 applications for mail-in ballots and has already received more than 21,000 ballots by mail — nearly five times as many as 2016.

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Back in Ottawa, Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee quizzed Perreault about the security of mail-in ballots. Corey Tochor, who represents a federal riding in Saskatoon but who is also served in Saskatchewan’s legislature, told the Commons’ committee he was concerned that Canadians in Hong Kong who were trying to vote by mail could have their ballots interfered with by the government in China.

“If we have hundreds of thousands of Canadians [in Hong Kong] that are being threatened by mainland China and they are controlling the mail, I have serious concerns about that,” Tochor said.

BQ MP Alain Therrien suggested that unscrupulous candidates could take mail-in ballots into long-term care homes and take advantage of seniors who may have diminished mental capacity to get them to vote in a fraudulent manner.

Perreault said Elections Canada does not see mail-in ballots as a risk.

“I don’t have concerns in terms of safety and security of the mail-in ballots,” Perreault said.

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The Procedure and House Affairs Committee will also be taking testimony from chief electoral officers in New Brunswick, PEI, Saskatchewan and BC — jurisdictions where elections or by-elections have already been held during this pandemic.

The committee intends to provide some recommendations in early December on what, if any changes, should be made to the Canada Elections Act to account for voting in a time of pandemic.