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Elections Canada considered briefing the Governor General on pandemic election rules

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette delivers the throne speech in the Senate chamber, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

As the rest of the country was going into its first lockdown in early April, Elections Canada officials were scrambling to figure out how the agency might “deliver” a federal election during a time of pandemic.

It was not an academic question. Elections Canada knew full well that a minority government in Ottawa means the country could be plunged into a general election at any time and it would be up to Elections Canada to conduct that election in a safe and secure manner.

“The COVID-19 crisis is uncharted territory for modern electoral administration,” an unknown Elections Canada official wrote in a background paper circulated within the agency last spring.

In meeting after meeting starting through the spring and summer, officials tried to pinpoint exactly when their “approved adaptive measures” would be in place. They concluded the earliest they could introduce “minimum viable products” to run a general election would be Sept. 1 but internal planning documents reviewed by Global News show the more realistic date the agency believes it could deliver a pandemic-proof election is April 1, 2021.

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“This is expected to be the single largest transformative effort in the agency’s history,” states a slide in a deck for a meeting of Elections Canada officials in May.

The agency encouraged its staff to consider just about any and all ideas, including consulting Gov. Gen. Julie Payette to advise her of the problems of a pandemic election.

A governor general’s normal responsibilities when a prime minister asks for a general election are either to grant that request or deny it. Only one governor general has ever denied a prime minister’s election request: Lord Byng turned down William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1926, creating what would be known as the King-Byng Affair.

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

The documents reviewed by Global News do not indicate what the purpose of involving the Governor General might be but the documents are clear about Elections Canada’s desire to have a longer, rather than shorter, writ period and to have other substantial changes to the elections process.

“In the event of a snap collection, the GG could intervene in the context of a pandemic and may wish to consult the (chief electoral officer),” says a late-spring memo prepared by the agency’s communications division.

An Elections Canada spokesperson said Wednesday that chief electoral officer Stéphane Perrault decided in the end that briefing the Governor General was not necessary.

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But Elections Canada officials did flag, as early as April, that changes would be needed to the Canada Elections Act and other laws that govern how Canada runs a general election and, sure enough, the Trudeau government tabled legislation, Bill C-19, earlier this month to temporarily change election rules.

It will be at least February 2021 before parliamentarians will be able to consider that legislation but some of the changes in C-19, as well as other regulatory and procedural changes Elections Canada is working on, have the potential to significantly change not just the way electors actually cast a ballot but also the way political parties and candidates seek votes, raise money and get out their vote. Parties that most quickly adapt to the realities of these pandemic election rules could have a distinct advantage in a tight election.

The legislation does not do everything that Elections Canada officials have requested.

For example, one of the biggest challenges Elections Canada will face during a pandemic or post-pandemic election will be finding enough workers to staff polling places. In the 2019 general election, Elections Canada put 232,000 people to work at polling places and, of those, nearly half were 60 years old or older.

“There will be significant recruitment challenges … given that many Canadians may not want to put themselves at risk especially poll workers over the age of 60,” according to an internal Elections Canada document.

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Read more: Federal election during pandemic is feasible, official says

A slide shown at a May 29 meeting of an internal working group on recruitment was blunt: “Without a sufficient number of willing staff (at polling stations), we cannot deliver an electoral event. We cannot afford not to place their health and safety first.”

That concern was one of the main reasons Perrault asked the Trudeau government to change election day from one 12-hour session on a Monday to two eight-hour voting sessions spread out over a Saturday and a Sunday. Elections Canada officials who have been studying this issue since May believe it would be easier to get students and younger adults to work at a polling place on a weekend.

But the government, in C-19, did not agree to that request and, instead, wants the final election day in its proposed three-day polling period to be a Monday, with polls open for 12 hours. That Monday polling day would follow two eight-hour voting sessions on the prior Saturday and Sunday.

Among the items Bill C-19 proposes:

  • Establishing a three-day polling period instead of a single “election day.”
  • Overhauling the vote-by-mail system.
  • Providing for flexibility to allow for safe voting in long-term care facilities and facilities with persons living with disabilities.
  • Giving the chief electoral officer increased authority to adjust the election process as he sees fit to ensure the health and safety of voters and election workers.

Dozens of officials at Elections Canada — which operates independently and at arm’s-length from any government — organized themselves into several working groups in the spring, each tasked with everything from re-designing polling places in order to protect the safety of workers and voters to upgrading the computer systems to handle an expected surge in online services. Those working groups would meet several times over the coming months, fine-tuning a series of proposals and recommendations that would eventually get the approval of Perrault and form the basis for his recommendations for legislative changes.

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Perrault also testified twice this fall at the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee. That committee delivered an interim report earlier this month to the government.

Above all else, Perrault and his staff at Elections Canada were seeking to maintain the accuracy, integrity and fairness of the election process even as established rules and processes would clearly have to be changed.

“It is a complex balance that we have to find,” an unnamed official wrote in the agenda notes for a May 6 conference call.

Elections Canada would eventually be able to draw on the examples of provincial elections held in the fall in New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. But for sheer scale, nothing would match a general election in all 10 provinces and three territories.

Notably, the three provincial elections also produced majority governments and the overall outcome for each was never in doubt. That could be different in a federal election where a close or disputed outcome in a handful of ridings could decide which party might govern or whether Canada would see a minority or majority government.

One question that all election administrators — federal, provincial or international — quickly had to confront was how they might suspend or even cancel an election in the event of a public health emergency.

Federal legislation, the documents show, “does not contemplate the conduct of either a general election or a by-election during a state of emergency.” The Canada Elections Act says the federal cabinet, on the advice of the chief electoral officer, can suspend or postpone an election in “one or more ridings” if it is deemed practically impossible to conduct a general election due to “flood, fire, or other disaster.” No election in Canada’s history has ever been put off for such a reason.

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Global News has reviewed more than 600 pages of internal Elections Canada documents from April to mid-summer that provide a detailed look at the ideas — and the clear anxiety — of its top officials. Those documents were obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin using the federal Access to Information Act. Many of the pages are heavily redacted, with government censors often citing the need to preserve solicitor-client privilege.

Monday: David Akin reports that how Elections Canada feared that the integrity of a pandemic election would be at stake with millions of mail-in ballots expected.

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