Election officials say Toronto’s first experience with voting during the COVID-19 pandemic will be safe, despite rising case counts and public health recommendations that call for residents to stay home as much as possible.
Two federal byelections in the ridings of Toronto Centre and York Centre are scheduled for Oct. 26, with advance voting already underway in both contests.
The byelections mark the first time Canadians will cast federal ballots since the onset of the pandemic. Voters will be heading to the polls in the midst of what Ontario health officials are calling the second wave of COVID-19.
“Everything that we’ve been able to do to ensure the safety of the voters and the safety of our poll workers, we have implemented,” said Natasha Gauthier, a spokesperson for Elections Canada. Those measures include limits on the number of people in polling stations to allow for physical distancing.
Annamie Paul, the new Green Party leader who is running in Toronto Centre, has called for the byelection to be delayed due to health and safety concerns, though candidates from the other major federal parties have not voiced similar concerns.
“The situation in Toronto Centre is critical,” Paul said in a statement earlier this week. “The prime minister is asking Toronto Centre residents to choose between exercising their democratic right to vote or risking a potential super-spreader event.”
Ontario moved Toronto into a modified Stage 2 on Oct. 9, which includes a temporary ban on some indoor activities such as dining and gym workouts. Those restrictions will remain in place on byelection day.
COVID-19 cases in Toronto surged around the start of September, though the number of new daily cases is no longer growing as rapidly. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa has asked residents to leave their homes only for essential purposes.
Holding byelections now ‘the safest thing to do’
Elections Canada said voting can only be delayed in exceptional circumstances that make an election “impracticable” to hold.
Gauthier, the agency spokesperson, said the conditions in Toronto do not meet that threshold.
“We’re nowhere near that point … The measures that we have implemented are allowing us to deliver a safe election,” she said.
Even if the agency’s chief electoral officer determined that an election should be delayed, the recommendation would have to be approved by the prime minister’s office. Justin Trudeau has said he wants to hold the elections as quickly as possible, considering the possibility that the pandemic could worsen in the coming months.
“We made a determination that moving forward quickly on these byelections was probably the safest thing to do,” Trudeau said earlier this month.
Byelections must be held within six months of a seat being vacated. Former finance minister and Toronto Centre MP Bill Morneau resigned on Aug. 21, while former York Centre MP Michael Levitt stepped down on Sept. 1.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said on Friday that he supports the decision to hold the byelections, as long as safety measures, including “appropriate physical distancing” are possible.
“As long as you’re careful and put all the different health measures in place, I think these things should proceed, democracy has to go on,” he told reporters Friday afternoon.
Voters can expect changes, possible delays at polls
Elections Canada says voters can expect to see a number of changes at the polls, in addition to the restrictions on the number of people allowed inside a polling location at a given time. There will also be only one election worker assigned to each table, compared to the usual two.
Some of those changes may result in longer lines and wait times for voters, Gauthier warned.
Voters can also request mail-in ballots, the deadline for which is Tuesday, Oct 20.
Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault has written a report calling for more substantive changes to ensure the safety of voters casting their ballots during the pandemic.
Those changes will not be made in time for the coming byelections, since they require changes to the Canada Elections Act, which must be approved by Parliament.
The proposed changes include moving election day from Monday to a two-day period of Saturday and Sunday, which would increase total voting hours from 12 hours to 16 hours spread over two days.
The report also calls for Elections Canada to have greater power over how it conducts elections in long-term care facilities.