1. Preparing for the General Election – Report on the 44th General Election of September 20, 2021
A combination of circumstances related to the minority government context, the COVID-19 pandemic and new remote work arrangements made preparing for the 44th general election a unique challenge in the agency's 100-year history.
Elections Canada started to prepare for the possibility of delivering a pandemic election in spring 2020. As it continued its activities to close the 43rd general election and adjust, like so many other organizations, to the reality of most of its employees working remotely, the agency set up a task force to urgently develop the comprehensive plans and adaptive measures that would be needed if it had to deliver the 44th general election while the pandemic was still ongoing. Decisions and purchases had to be made early in the pandemic and on an ongoing basis as the agency's plans evolved.
During this preparatory period, Elections Canada focused on ensuring that its policies, procedures and protocols addressed pandemic circumstances and that returning officersfootnote 1 understood, and were ready to manage, how the pandemic might impact operations in their offices and at the polls.
A Safe Election
The agency's overarching priority was to ensure that Canadians would feel safe participating in the election, whatever their role.
Elections Canada developed safety measures in consultation with federal, provincial and territorial public health authorities, as well as with provincial and international electoral management bodies that were themselves preparing for pandemic elections.
The agency also updated or created new reference materials to guide election workers on how to implement changes to operations in the field. Examples include:
- COVID-19 Guide for Election Administrators - Polling Places endnote i
- COVID-19 Guide for the Service Centre
- COVID-19 Guide for Election Officers at the Polls endnote ii
- COVID-19 Guide for Election Officers at the Polls – Supplement: Health and Safety Update
To comply with physical distancing measures, Elections Canada developed a model for providing in-person voting services using a single poll worker, replacing the two-person model traditionally used in elections. Training guides and staffing instructions were revised accordingly.
Unlike provincial and territorial election agencies, Elections Canada could not take a uniform approach to addressing safety at the polls. Public health measures varied widely across provinces and territories, as well as at the local level. This lack of uniformity and the evolving situation risked creating confusion among electors, candidates and election workers about which rules applied to them.
The agency created the General Election Pandemic Intelligence (GEPI) Task Force to develop a coordinated approach to implementing the various response measures across the country. Its mandate was to ensure that Canadians nationwide could exercise their democratic rights to vote and be a candidate in a consistent, safe and secure manner. To achieve this and to maximize the impact of its efforts, the task force:
- established working relationships with public health authorities and security organizations across the country to get advice and guidance on how to adapt electoral procedures and tools in a pandemic
- received information regularly from health partners to monitor the pandemic environment
- proactively identified areas likely to need more attention based on information received from partners
- developed health and safety protocols, instructions and training packages
- facilitated the distribution of information within Elections Canada
Elections Canada also created a Pandemic Election Toolkit for returning officers. This resource, which was regularly updated with information specific to the returning officer's electoral district, served as a central point of reference for information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The toolkit included:
- official letters from provincial and territorial chief medical officers providing more clarity about the conduct of general elections (i.e. public service versus public gathering)
- additional documents addressed to landlords, to support the selection of offices and polling places
- maps of electoral districts, with overlays of local public health areas to indicate which health authorities were responsible for which area
- other pandemic-related information, including contact information for local public health authorities
Working with Parliament
To help address the challenges related to the pandemic, Elections Canada submitted the Special Report of the Chief Electoral Officer: Administering an Election during the COVID-19 Pandemicendnote iii to the Speaker of the House of Commons on October 5, 2020.
It recommended a temporary legislative response that would allow for desirable adjustments but leave the Canada Elections Act and the electoral system unchanged once the pandemic ends.
The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) also carried out a study on delivering a potential election during the pandemic, hearing witness testimony from representatives of Elections Canada and other electoral management bodies, as well as from representatives of public health authorities and various stakeholder communities. Its report, Protecting Public Health and Democracy During a Possible Pandemic Election,endnote iv was issued in February 2021 and was closely aligned with Elections Canada's plans.
In December 2020, the government introduced Bill C-19: An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (COVID-19 response),endnote v which proposed a number of measures to adjust the Canada Elections Actendnote vi to the circumstances of the pandemic and included elements not found in Elections Canada's recommendations. One example of these new elements was the placement of boxes designated to receive special ballots at polling places, which Elections Canada added to its plans. Although Bill C-19 was not enacted, parliamentary debates, including those conducted at PROC, were useful in that they confirmed the agency's approach and inspired the addition of new measures.
Elections Canada prepared to receive as many as 5 million requests for special ballot voting kits from electors wishing to vote by mail—a scale 100 times greater than in the previous general election.footnote 2
While voting by mail has been an option available to all electors since 1993, it had never been widely used, especially by local electors (i.e. those who vote from inside their electoral district) who can get out to vote at their polling places. Expanding the capacity to receive and process applications for special ballots in a timely manner was a critical component of Elections Canada's planning. Voting by mail would be a safe alternative for electors who could not, or did not feel comfortable with, casting their ballot at a local office or polling station.
To protect the integrity of the electoral process, the Canada Elections Act provides for the issuing of special ballots on request, and only during the election period.footnote 3 Knowing that the uptake of—and curiosity about—the special ballot process was likely to be much greater for the 44th general election, Elections Canada communicated extensively with Canadians about this alternative voting method. To ensure that electors felt confident using this option, and trusted in the results of the election, the Chief Electoral Officer used every opportunity to explain the extra verification steps taken to ensure the integrity of voting by mail using a special ballot. The agency developed infographics and videos, held technical briefings with political parties and the media, and invited observers to watch the count of special ballots at the agency's processing centre in Ottawa. Elections Canada also consistently communicated that—owing to the projected increase in the volume of special ballots cast and the enhanced integrity measures—results for some electoral districts might not be known on election night.
To simplify the special ballot application process for the 44th general election and be able to issue special ballot kits in a timely way, Elections Canada developed a system that allowed electors to request their kit online and upload the required proof of identity.footnote 4 A point-on-map feature was included to allow electors living at a non-standard address to identify their physical address by selecting a specific location on a virtual map. Elections Canada also added a feature that enabled electors to check the status of their special ballot request, and if an elector provided an email address when they applied, they automatically received confirmation when their special ballot application was received by the local office.
Elections Canada also provided, for the first time, pre-paid return envelopes. Apart from procuring the necessary supplies, the agency also had to purchase new machinery to process the increased volume of mail-in special ballots. Critical to the success of the operations was the fact that special ballots from electors voting by mail from within their electoral district were managed at local offices, in terms of both issuing and receiving the ballots. This minimized the time it took for these ballots to be sent to and returned by electors and divided the overall national volume into manageable amounts at the local level. Workflow simulations were conducted to assess the capacity of local offices to manage special ballot requests in a timely manner and to determine the workforce and space required. As a result, approximately 1,500 additional computers were purchased and set up in local offices to support the processing of applications.
Given the level of national interest in how many Canadians would opt to vote by special ballot, the agency published data on special ballot voting kitsendnote vii showing the number of kits issued to electors, both in Canada and abroad, during the election.
As reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada,endnote viii the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Canada's seniors, with the majority of COVID-19 deathsfootnote 5 occurring among adults aged 65 years and older. Elections Canada expected that these vulnerable Canadians, who made up a significant portion of the workforce for previous electoral events, would be reluctant to put themselves in a situation that would expose them to additional risk entry registers and ensure compliance with other health and safety measures. Consequently, the required workforce would again be over 200,000.
The agency increased the budget for its recruitment campaign and deployed regional recruitment strategies and resources. The pay rates of poll workers and election administrators and their staff, as set out in the Federal Elections Fees Tariff,endnote ix were also increased.footnote 6
In preparing for the general election, it was expected that finding locations for polling places would present major challenges. Many traditional polling places, such as community centres, churches and schools, would likely be unavailable owing to concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 or because these locations were being used as vaccination or testing centres. Other locations, although available, would not have the space or infrastructure needed to meet physical distancing or other public health requirements.
In 2019, 15,447 polling places were leased to house 64,671 election day polling stations. Of these, 46 percent were in schools and other conveniently located places that are generally familiar and accessible to electors in a community. It was expected that in 2021 few, if any, schools would be available, especially on a Monday, and that other community buildings would also be unavailable or would be unsuitable in light of distancing and public health requirements.
As polling places would likely be fewer and farther apart, electors could face increased travel distances, accessibility issues and longer lineups. To mitigate these risks, returning officers considered all possible alternatives, including places not usually used for voting, and communicated with property owners and managers at regular intervals throughout 2020 and 2021 to confirm availability.
A key priority for Elections Canada was ensuring that vulnerable electors, including those residing in long-term care facilities and those in Indigenous communities, had the opportunity to vote safely. This was complicated by the fact that a large number of such facilities and communities were in lockdown and that voting by special ballot could present challenges for their residents.footnote 7
Under the Canada Elections Act,endnote x electors in long-term care facilities are generally served through mobile polls. In previous events, the same election workers would visit multiple facilities in a short time frame to deliver voting services to residents. This approach would not be appropriate in a pandemic.
Given the varying and evolving circumstances at each long-term care facility across the country, it was necessary to implement a range of alternatives to the traditional mobile poll. As part of their readiness activities, returning officers were instructed to consult the administrators of long-term care facilities in their electoral districts to determine which of the following four voting options could be offered to residents:
- an on-site polling station on election day, open for up to 12 hours
- an early on-site polling station, open for up to 12 hours on a date established in the weeks before election day
- a coordinated special ballot voting process: When circumstances would not allow for an on-site poll, Elections Canada would work with the facility to provide residents with a special ballot application and voting kit. Facility staff could help residents fill out their application. Once the residents voted, election workers would collect their completed ballot kits. The electors' identity and address would be confirmed by facility administrators.
- voting independently by special ballot returned by mail: If the options above were impossible to carry out, electors could still apply to vote by special ballot and return it by mail.
Return to footnote 1 Returning officers are election officers appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer who are responsible for delivering and managing federal electoral events within the electoral district to which they are appointed.
Return to footnote 2 In the 43rd general election approximately 55,000 electors voted by submitting a special ballot by mail.
Return to footnote 3 By contrast, in jurisdictions where they are the main method of voting—as is the case in some American states—mail-in ballots are typically issued automatically to all registered electors. In other jurisdictions, applications for mail-in ballots can be made ahead of the election period. At the federal level in Canada, such a system exists only for Canadian citizens living abroad.
Return to footnote 4 In past elections, local electors who applied to vote by mail had to send photocopies of their required documentation to an Elections Canada office.
Return to footnote 5 Approximately 80 percent in 2020.
Return to footnote 6 Fees paid to field personnel at the 43rd general election were $165 million. The current estimate for fees paid to field personnel at the 44th general election is $201 million, an increase of 22 percent.
Return to footnote 7 In particular, when applying to vote by mail, electors must prove their identity by producing photocopies of their identification documents or uploading photos of the documents over the Internet, neither of which is possible for many residents of long-term care facilities.