With the prospect of a federal election this year growing stronger, a new polls finds a majority of Canadians think going to the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only unsafe, but would create an unfair vote.
The Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News suggests that while 53 per cent of voters feel it’s necessary to hold an election this year — mainly to have a say on how the Liberal government has managed the pandemic — 54 per cent are concerned about the safety of holding a vote, while 57 per cent it would not be fair.
That sentiment is highest among Liberals who responded to the poll, with nearly two-thirds on average expressing doubts about a pandemic election.
“If the prime minister is of the feeling that there’s a wide view among Liberal supporters that there’s a real necessity to have an election at the moment, that’s not supported by the polling data,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of public affairs at Ipsos.
In fact, the polling found Conservatives are the most eager to hold the government to account at the ballot box, with 70 per cent of Tory voters supporting the idea. The same number of respondents also said they’re “completely comfortable” with voting in person.
Overall, 54 per cent of Canadians said they would be comfortable with in-person voting, while 37 per cent disagreed and 10 per cent were on the fence.
The idea that voting during a pandemic would create an unfair result is already being debated in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the provincial election was upended by a major COVID-19 outbreak in the St. John’s capital region.
The province’s New Democratic Party is mounting a court challenge after the Liberals won a majority government amid low turnout and problems with mail-in ballots, which became the main method of voting after in-person polling places were closed.
While every other province and territory that held an election during the pandemic saw relatively few issues with expanded mail-in and advance voting, Bricker says Elections Canada faces a daunting task in ensuring fairness and confidence in a federal vote.
“I can’t recall — and I’ve been doing this for an awful long time — ever going into an election in which a majority of the population say that it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to hold a fair election,” he said.
Legislation meant to accommodate a pandemic election has also sat in the House of Commons too long for those changes to be enacted for a vote this year, Bricker notes.
“It’s a really precarious situation, a difficult circumstance under which to kick off an election, and an election in which the public are saying they don’t necessarily want it, they don’t think it’ll be fair and they don’t think it’ll be safe,” he said.
Pandemic, health care top issues for voters
If an election is called this year, the poll unsurprisingly found COVID-19, health care and the economy are the top issues driving voters and their ballot choice.
Asked for their top three issues, nearly 40 per cent of those surveyed chose the pandemic, followed by 32 per cent for health care and 26 per cent choosing the economy.
Twenty-two per cent of voters said affordability and the cost of living was a top issue, while housing, taxes and climate change each earning support from 17 per cent of those polled.
Issues that typically dominated past elections — including infrastructure, immigration, crime and racism — saw only single-digit support, with many falling below five per cent.
“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is clearly COVID,” Bricker said. “It has become the urgent that has pushed out the important.”
The poll found surprising results on which political parties Canadians feel are best to lead on some of those issues, however.
The Liberals won top marks among respondents who think the party is best-suited to manage the pandemic (41 per cent) and health care (36 per cent), boasting double-digit leads over the Conservatives for both issues.
Yet the Liberals are also seen as leaders on issues typically aligned with more progressive parties like the NDP and Greens, including affordability (35 per cent for the Liberals compared to 16 per cent for the NDP) and even climate change (39 per cent chose the Liberals, a slight edge over the Greens’ 32 per cent).
The Conservatives, meanwhile, were the top pick for issues long central to their platform, including the economy (39 per cent) and taxes (45 per cent).
“(The Liberals) have really consolidated the progressive political agenda around themselves,” Bricker said. “They’ve become that option for most voters, and the Green Party and NDP lack an identity on the progressive side of the agenda.
“What we’re seeing here are two coalitions that are coming together … and that’s a progressive coalition and a conservative coalition. And the progressive coalition is bigger.”
The results from the poll suggest that, even though a majority of Canadians are uneasy about a pandemic election, the Liberals may still come out on top among voters.
Polling released last week found if an election were held tomorrow, the Liberals would gain 40 per cent of the vote compared to 30 per cent for the Conservatives — putting the Liberals in good position to form a majority government.
“They’re positioned as well as I’ve seen any party positioned at any time since probably back to the turn of the millennium,” Bricker said.
“But overall, the issue the government is facing is people don’t see a burning desire to have an election.”