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ANALYSIS: 16 million pencils, 18.8 million masks — Canada prepares for a pandemic election

Click to play video: '16 Million Pencils: How Canada is preparing for a pandemic election' 16 Million Pencils: How Canada is preparing for a pandemic election
WATCH: A pandemic changes the way voters pick their politicians, the way politicians find their voters and the way officials make sure it’s all done safely and fairly. As David Akin explains for The New Reality, it will be a new world for voters and for the campaigns going after them – Apr 24, 2021

To prepare for a potential federal election in the midst of a pandemic, Elections Canada went shopping.

It bought 18.8 million surgical masks, 577,770 bottles of hand sanitizer, 411,310 face shields, 126,100 plexiglass shields and 40,000 packages of disinfectant wipes.

It also picked up 16 million pencils — including 3.65 million ‘large-grip’ pencils — because if there is a pandemic election, Elections Canada expects each pencil to mark an ‘x’ just once — and then, in the interests of preventing disease being passed by pencil, to be tossed away.

All those purchases — and much more — are part of a complete rethink Elections Canada has gone through for more than a year now as it focused on one single mission.

Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier outlined that focus during a recent interview with Global News: “What can we do now to make sure that if there is an election, we are able to deliver an election that is as safe as possible for voters, for Elections Canada staff, for poll workers and to make sure that we are able to do that in a way that the integrity of the election is not compromised in any way?”

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Global News met Gauthier in the Elections Canada warehouse near downtown Ottawa that contains hundreds of crates of pencils, personal protective equipment (PPE), ballots and more — all ready to be shipped out to 338 ridings in support of the task of soliciting the political preferences of as many as 19 million voters.

The pandemic elections already run in B.C., Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and, most recently, in Newfoundland and Labrador — as well as the U.S. presidential election of last fall — all clearly demonstrated that the pandemic will have a huge impact on the way voters pick their politicians, the way politicians find the votes they need, and the way election administrators make sure everything is done fairly and accurately.

Read more: Pandemic election integrity at stake with millions of mail-in-ballots expected, Elections Canada docs say

A federal general election in a pandemic would be no different. It would be a unique experience for all involved.

For millions of voters, the big change will be where and when a ballot is cast. Elections Canada is betting as many as five million Canadians will choose to vote by mail. That would be nearly 100 times more mail-in-ballots than the 55,000 who mailed it in 2019.

But one thing that will not change is the method by which Canadian voters make their preferences known in a general election. Just as they have in every federal election in their history, Canadian voters will use a pencil and a piece of paper. It won’t matter if it’s in-person voting on election day, in-person voting at an advance poll or a mail-in ballot: there will be hard copies upon which the voter must make his or her mark.

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And, just like in every other election in Canada’s history, all of those ballots will be examined by hand to verify their legitimacy; envelopes will be opened by hand; and the ballots — every single one of them — will be counted by hand in the presence of at least two independent Elections Canada employees watched closely by any scrutineers that registered political parties choose to send into any counting room.

Voting by hand. Counting by hand. No machines. Which means it will take time.

“People should be prepared to expect delays in the results. And we may not know the final results of the election on election night,” Gauthier said.

So voting and counting ballots will be using old-fashioned analog methods. But campaigning when public health authorities are discouraging or forbidding gatherings will be next-generation digital.

There will be a never-before-seen reliance on machines and algorithms that can slice and dice demographic data allowing parties to minutely and precisely target individuals with their pitches, pleas and policies.

Read more: A first look at Canada’s next federal election battlegrounds

A barrage of automated smartphone texts, short viral videos and database-driven marketing delivered to glowing smartphone screens will replace the sweat, energy and enthusiasm at a political rally, the shouts and laughter of coffee-shop arguments, and those serious doorstop discussions with clean-cut candidates that have been the hallmarks of human campaigning for decades.

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“There are no big rallies. It makes it very difficult to generate momentum,” said Dimitri Pantazopoulos, Vancouver-based president of Yorkville Strategies and a veteran of election war rooms for small-c conservative parties across Canada, most recently for the BC Liberals last fall. “You had to think a little bit differently about how how to create an event and how to get public attention at a time when the public is focused, frankly, on something else — that being the pandemic.”

The BC Liberals lost last fall to the BC NDP, whose war room was led by Bob Dewar — a veteran of progressive campaigns in multiple provinces. But the pandemic campaign of last fall was nothing like he’d ever seen.

“It was unique and very different,” said Dewar, now a special advisor to Premier John Horgan. “We did not allow volunteers into our campaign office. It was just paid staff and we did no door-to-door canvassing — two big things that we’ve never done before. We were extremely nervous because there’s no playbook on this. There is no playbook on how you run a pandemic campaign.”

Read more: Coronavirus — Electoral fraud during a pandemic not an issue for election officials in N.B., P.E.I.

One consequence, though, of campaigns that go all digital and atomize an electorate into its constituent parts is that a shared democratic experience is lost. The election experienced by an urban voter in a swing riding will be very different than the election experienced by a rural voter in a safe seat. The voter with two cars and a five-bedroom home is treated differently by campaigners than the transit user living in a basement apartment a block away. There will no longer be a common frame of reference for the politics that emerges from such an election.

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“I actually don’t know whether or not my Instagram ads are the same as my neighbour’s Instagram ad, and probably they’re not,” said University of Guelph political science professor Tamara Small. “This idea of a one-on-one campaign, I think it’s seductive. I also think there’s some real democratic issues that we have to sort of think through because we don’t want one promise to this person and a different promise to that person. We want to have a sense of what the parties truly are going to do. And it’s hard to know what that looks like anymore.”

And an all-digital campaign is also bound to leave some behind for the simple reason that, even in this third decade of the 21st century, a digital divide continues to exist in Canada.

“It’s easy to think that technology is evenly distributed to everybody. It’s just not,” Small said. “And so, therefore, some people are not going to have the same sort of campaign as other people might.”

David Akin is the Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.

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