As Canadians head to the polls to cast the votes that will dictate the direction of the country, things might look a little different at the ballot box.
That’s because this year’s federal election is taking place during a global pandemic.
Canada’s COVID-19 situation is looking much more promising than it did just months ago. Because of enthusiastic vaccine uptake, many Canadians can feel safer navigating their daily lives. Over 63 per cent of Canadians are fully vaccinated, and hospitals remain well equipped to withstand outbreaks among the remaining unvaccinated population.
And while Canadians will still go through the usual motions of ticking a box next to their preferred candidate, Elections Canada has taken steps to ensure the pandemic doesn’t create any undue speedbumps for Canadians partaking in the democratic process.
“The health and safety of all participants in the electoral process is of paramount importance: this includes electors, thousands of election workers, and candidates and their workers,” read an explanation on the Elections Canada website.
“As a result, Elections Canada has been reviewing its procedures and internal capacity in order to prepare for the delivery of an accessible, safe and secure election during a pandemic.”
Global News took a look at what Canadians can expect ahead of, and at, the ballot box.
What does the campaign look like?
A traditional election campaign consists of energetic speeches delivered to screaming crowds, politicians holding babies, and up-close conversations on Canadians’ doorsteps.
But with the threat of COVID-19 still lurking in the background, Canadians can expect to see a slightly different election campaign, according to the participating parties.
“It’s long been said that ‘all politics is local,’ and now ‘all politics is digital’ more than ever before,” said Braeden Caley, the senior director of communications for the Liberal Party, in an emailed statement.
The Conservative Party is singing a similar tune in the lead-up to the vote.
“Over the last year and a half, our team and supporters have had more experience campaigning virtually than any other political party in Canada,” said Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party of Canada.
“We’ll certainly be using technologies and techniques that worked well and apply them to our own election campaign.”
Hann added that his party intends to use “whatever tools we have at our disposal” to convince Canadians to fly the Tory banner during the upcoming election.
Caley said the Liberals are mounting a similarly dedicated effort.
“Volunteers have resumed door-knocking in safe ways and joined together in for small events wherever it’s become possible, and we’re hopeful that we will be able to continue building on that progress safely in the weeks ahead,” he said.
“We’ve spent recent months making major leaps and improvements in our digital campaign tools to position both our local and national teams for continued success.”
Canadians have already had a taste of COVID-era politics with the various announcements, press conferences and provincial election events that politicians have held across the country. While the usual crowds weren’t present and politicians spoke from faraway podiums, the pre-election campaign-style stops still featured the speeches and promises of future action that Canadians have grown to expect from a traditional campaign.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has highlighted the greatest hits from his time in government in a series of cross-country speeches, announcing funding for regional projects. Green Party Leader Annamie Paul cut a green ribbon outside her Toronto Centre office after taking questions from the press, surrounded by staff who applauded each talking point.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet retreated to Quebec, where he could speak to the only voters in the country who can choose a Bloc Quebecois candidate at the ballot box.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh bubbled up in an increasing number of viral videos on TikTok, the social media site of choice for Canada’s young adult voters. He also released a series of “commitments” to Canadians in the form of a 115 page document — one that read a lot like a platform.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also hopped on the early campaign-style circuit with a series of press conferences in recent weeks.
The competitive spirit is alive and well among the parties — and all of them are fighting for the same thing: Canadians’ votes on election day.
How will I vote?
Once the government dropped the writs, the campaign kicked off — and no more than 36 days later, Canadians will have to hit the polls to determine the direction of the country.
“The minute that an election is triggered, we go into our deployment mode, basically,” Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier said in an April interview with Global News.
And as training gets underway and employees prepare the polling booths for the big day, they’ll get a helping hand from the hard work that’s been underway since the time when a prospect of a pandemic election was just a distant glimmer in Trudeau’s eye.
Leading up to the election, Elections Canada bought millions of surgical masks, hundreds of thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, thousands of face shields, plexiglass shields and even packages of disinfectant wipes.
It also purchased 16 million pencils, because each one is supposed to be used just one time before being thrown away.
While there will be masks and pencils awaiting voters at the polling site, Canadians will also have the option “to bring their own mask and pen or pencil,” according to the Elections Canada website.
Thanks to Elections Canada’s stockpile shopping, voters can expect a fairly normal voting process — despite being greeted by a deluge of sanitation practices and a disposable pencil at the polls. And for most, this in-person voting option will continue to be “the most convenient way to vote,” Gauthier said.
“Certainly the easiest way to vote is just to go to your polling location on an advanced polling day or on polling day and vote in person, as you have always done,” she said.
For those who don’t want to go to a voting location, Elections Canada has aimed to streamline alternative options.
“If people don’t feel comfortable, for whatever reason, going to vote in person, … vote by mail is available to them,” Gauthier said.
The vote-by-mail process has been tweaked to make sure it’s more accessible to prospective voters. If you weren’t out of town but still wanted to apply to vote by mail in your riding, you used to have to visit your local returning officer. But that’s not the case anymore. Now, you can apply online.
“It’s going to be a lot easier for you to apply to vote by mail,” Gauthier said.
You also won’t have to pay anything to do it.
“All mail-in ballots will have their postage paid. So you do not have to pay to send us back your ballot,” she said.
And, with an eye on the fact that people might be more keen to vote by mail than they have been in previous years, Gauthier said Elections Canada has taken steps to ensure “the integrity of the election is not compromised in any way.”
“There’s a pretty rigorous verification process that has to be completed by the returning officer before they can even start opening the envelopes to count the ballots. And that process has to be done,” she said.
“We don’t cut corners at Elections Canada.“
When will we know who won?
Should enough Canadians opt for a mail-in vote rather than the traditional visit to the voting booth, campaigns and voting day aren’t the only things that will be impacted by the pandemic.
We could also see a delay in finding out who won.
During the 2020 U.S. presidential election in November, Canadians held their collective breath for days before the winner was confirmed. That’s because so many people opted to vote using mail-in ballots, which some states weren’t used to counting — meaning that despite the well-oiled systems in place in some parts of the country, the areas that weren’t used to tallying this type of ballot slowed things down.
According to a survey Elections Canada conducted in late September 2020 — notably, before the vaccination campaign got underway — a majority of Canadian electors said they’d vote in person. Over 30 per cent of voters intended to vote at a polling station, while just shy of 30 per cent said they’d vote in person at advanced polls.
However, a whopping 23.4 per cent said they’d vote by mail.
“If you look at 2019, we had a total of about 54,000 mail-in ballots total. For the next election, we’re anticipating four to five million mail-in ballots,” Gauthier said.
And those ballots can take longer to count.
“Local mail-in ballots are counted in the returning offices, as opposed to here, (so) the situation in every returning office, every electoral district might be a bit different,” Gauthier said.
This means we might not get the election results as quickly as we’re used to.
“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.
“We are preparing people to be patient.”
— with files from Global News’ David Akin