For the politicians and the people working for them, it all takes some getting used to.
Shaking hands and kissing babies are no longer options. Neither are traditional rallies or meet-and-greets. For as long as politics has been a thing, campaigning politicians have tried to put themselves over with the public by getting up close and personal on the campaign trail. Now, they can’t get closer than two metres to a voter.
“This has been a whole new experience for everyone, from party officials to the candidates and those of us who are campaigning on the ground,” James Bezan told CBC News.
Bezan is chair of the Manitoba campaign for Peter MacKay’s Conservative leadership bid. He says the race has gone from meeting and greeting voters face to face, holding rallies and testing policies on the ground to “talking to people through their devices, whether it’s laptops or smartphones or tablets.”
“That is the new normal until we find a cure for COVID,” he added. “It has taken away that personal contact that’s so important for candidates … To get to see Peter up close and experience his charm and intellect and the gravitas that he carries is so important.”
Campaign events for both the Conservative and Green Party leadership races have moved online to platforms like Facebook Live and Zoom. Green Party leadership candidate Glen Murray had to abandon plans for a cross-Canada tour.
“We’re sort of doing listening-type town halls, where people can ask me questions, introduce myself a bit to people,” Murray said.
It isn’t the same.
“I don’t think who we are really translates well through a screen,” said Murray. “I think being in a room with someone, sitting down, looking people in the eye, getting a sense of who they are and allowing them to get a sense of who you are, seeing how we actually are effective as public speakers in a room … A lot of those kinds of qualities … factor into people’s decisions about who they want as leader of their party.
“A lot of that is going to be harder for people to look at and determine because we have a socially distanced campaign.”
Leadership campaigns are just the warm-up acts. A general election is the main event — and with the Trudeau government in a minority position in Parliament, an election could be triggered at any time.
“Quite problematic, is how I would describe it. It’s quite humongous in terms of challenges,” former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley told CBC News. He said politicians should take care to see that no election is accidentally launched “unless absolutely necessary” and before “Elections Canada can say, and we think, we can do a good job at this.”
Planning for a general election in a pandemic is forcing Elections Canada to think about things it’s never had to consider before. Pencils, for example.
“The little wooden pencils, those are mandated by the Canada Elections Act,” Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier told CBC News. Elections Canada can’t just tell voters to bring their own pencils to polling stations to close off a possible vector for the virus — because it’s required by law to provide them.
“We can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to have pencils so that people don’t spread the virus.’ We have to have them,” Gauthier said.
“Is it a question of then having to have 17 million pencils that would each be single-use disposable pencils?”
Elections Canada recently set up an internal working group to come up with a plan to deliver an accessible and safe election if no vaccine is available in time for the next vote. “They are examining every possible aspect of delivering an election in a pandemic or post-pandemic situation,” said Gauthier. “Nothing is off the table.”
The limits of voting by mail
The working group is looking into how to maintain physical distancing between voters and among polling station workers — by reducing the number of people who work at polling stations and locating them in places with more space to physically distance workers and voters.
It’s also looking at how to reduce the number of voters casting ballots in person.
That work involves examining the current vote-by-mail system to see if it can be retooled to handle a larger volume. The past few elections have seen a steady rise in the number of voters using mail-in ballots. In 2015, 35,000 Canadians used this system; in 2019, that number spiked to 55,000.
But while Elections Canada wants to know if it can expand the vote-by-mail system, said Gauthier, it can’t use it to replace in-person voting entirely. Like the pencils, polling stations are required by law.
“The way that the Canada Elections Act is written, it foresees that Canadian electors will be given a variety of ways in which they can vote and exercise their franchise,” she said.
“If we were to move to mail in ballot only, that would necessitate a change to the act, and that would have to be enacted by Parliament.”
Elections Canada has time to plan, at any rate. While the agency is prepared to field an election at any time, its “election readiness” date — the date by which it must have implemented any changes to election processes and protocols — is April, 2021.