Dozens of Elections Canada employees have been working all summer to figure out how it would collect and count millions of the mail-in ballots it expects to have to process if — or when — Canada holds a general election during a time of pandemic.
At stake: the very integrity of a Canadian general election could depend on how well a mail-in-ballot system would work.
“Canadian electors and stakeholders are heavily influenced by news coverage from the United States and it will be important to distinguish between Canada’s electoral system and the integrity safeguards built into it versus that of the United States,” according to a late spring memo prepared by the agency’s communications division, one of 600 pages of internal memos, e-mails, and presenation decks reviewed by Global News.
In other general elections, Elections Canada might have to deal with about 50,000 mail-in ballots among 18 million or so ballots cast in a general election. But now, faced with an expected four or even five million mail-in ballots, Elections Canada was facing a complete re-do of some of its most basic processes: Issuing ballots, receiving ballots and counting ballots.
“This is expected to be the single largest transformative effort in the agency’s history,” said a slide in a deck for a meeting of Elections Canada officials in May.
At one point, the task seemed so daunting that a mid-level manager at the agency suggested to a colleague that maybe Elections Canada should ease up a little on any proposed ad campaign to get Canadians to use mail-in-ballots for fear the agency’s systems would be swamped.
But how to do that? One problem: Young, digital-only voters may literally not know how to send or receive snail mail. “The lack of familiarity of many young voters with sending mail … may result in electors requesting a ballot kit but not actually sending it back,” according to the unnamed official who took minutes for a mid-summer meeting of the working group.
As that working group got under way in the spring, the meeting notes acknowledged they were in for a “very intense” period of work as they figured how to re-imagine and re-engineer the process by which millions of Canadians securely and safely cast ballots. “There is no bad idea at this stage. All suggestions are welcome.”
The documents reviewed by Global News were obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin using the federal Access to Information Act. Many of the pages are heavily redacted.
One idea under serious consideration is to give electors who want to vote by mail postage-paid return envelopes.
“The issue of paid-postage is a big one for us ,” a senior official in Elections Canada’s public affairs and civic education division wrote to colleagues in an e-mail. “We have heard from several stakeholders that electors having to pay to vote could be considered a vote tax, and at the very least, an accessibility barrier.”
In previous year, those wishing to vote by mail — it’s technically referred to as a special ballot — must ask for a mail-in ballot package from Elections Canada and, in doing so, provide proof of identity and answer a few questions. Elections Canada mails out the package which contains instructions, a ballot, and a special envelope. The elector does not mark an ‘x’ on the ballot beside their preferred candidate’s name as electors do on election day at a polling place. Instead, electors write in their preferred candidate’s name on the ballot, put the ballot back in the special envelope and mail it back to Elections Canada.
The vast majority of mail-in-ballots cast in previous elections are cast by electors who are posting their ballots from overseas or from locations that are not in their electoral district. Those ballots all get sent to a central Elections Canada counting facility in Ottawa.
But ballots posted from within the voter’s electoral district get sent to the local returning office.
In 2019, local returning offices might have received and process as few as 15 or 20 mail-in ballots. In a pandemic election, Elections Canada worries each local returning office could have to process and count as many as 15,000 mail-in ballots, an increase that would require Elections Canada to hire thousands more workers and potentially invest in new equipment to process those ballots.