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You’ve read the party platforms, received your voter ID card, and made a plan to vote on election day. But then you, or a close contact, test positive for COVID-19. What happens now?
Any Canadian voter who is required to self-isolate due to a positive COVID-19 test, or close contact with someone who has tested positive, in accordance with their provincial or territorial rules, will find themself without any options to cast a ballot come Sept. 20.
Elections Canada has brought in a number of precautions for safe voting, including safety measures at polling booths, advance voting dates and mail-in ballots. Nearly 5.8 million Canadians voted over the four days of advance polling, and more than 1.2 million Canadians requested special voting kits, far more than in previous years.
But for would-be voters who have missed the window for those early chances to vote, or who remain undecided until election day, there is no recourse available should they need to self-isolate.
“We ask that any elector who thinks they may have COVID-19 or who [has] tested positive for the virus to isolate, stay home and not come to an Elections Canada office or polling place,” reads a statement from Elections Canada.
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“Unfortunately, after Tuesday, Sept. 14, electors who have or believe they have COVID-19 and who have not already applied to vote by mail will not be able to vote.”
Currently, every province and territory has rules requiring people to self-isolate if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or have come into close contact with someone who has.
There are, however, some differences between the various provincial and territorial self-isolation rules. In some provinces, for example, people who are vaccinated and contract COVID-19 are required to self-isolate for 10 days rather than 14.
In Saskatchewan, a fully vaccinated individual identified as a close contact of a positive case is not required to self-isolate, unlike an unvaccinated close contact.
Cases likely to rise through election period
Fahad Razak, an internal medicine physician at St. Michael’s Hospital, as well as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said that given current immunization rates and case counts across Canada, lifting isolation requirements for voting is not a safe option.
“You cannot safely vote if you have COVID-19. The risk of exposure to other individuals is just unfortunately too high and that includes many who can’t be vaccinated still,” he said.
“Will it affect a significant number of people? It could — and I say that because case rates continue to ramp up across the country and there’s an expectation that they’ll continue to rise at least through the election period. There’s been hundreds of children who have already been sent home just in the first week of school because of COVID-19 exposure, so you could imagine that could cascade out in the coming days.”
This isn’t the first election to be held as COVID-19 cases were on the rise. In the fall of 2020, B.C.’s chief electoral officer said the province’s election did not result in any exposures at polling stations despite the fact the population was unvaccinated at the time.
But Razak said the highly transmissible delta variant, which accounts for nearly all COVID-19 cases in Canada at the moment, has been a game-changer.
“The conditions on the ground have changed, so the recommendations around what is safe are trying to keep up with the situation that we face today,” he said.
No online or proxy options on election day
Stewart Prest, a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said the right to vote is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and over several decades has been expanded so that just about every adult citizen in Canada is able to cast a ballot.
He said when a charter right collides with public health concerns, it can become a complex question, though Elections Canada has a responsibility to “minimally impair” a person’s right to vote.
“The circumstances in which someone is unable to cast a ballot is something that shouldn’t be done lightly and there should be some compelling reason [behind] it,” said Prest. He pointed out that in other elections held during the pandemic, additional voting methods were made available.
In B.C., for example, residents who tested positive for COVID-19 were eligible to vote online, but online voting is not available for the federal election. Other countries have introduced methods such as curbside voting, or voting by proxy.
“It does raise a question of whether Elections Canada spent enough time thinking of what options they could find for Canadians finding themselves in this unusual but not uncommon position,” Prest said.
Razak said he hopes the election will highlight the extent to which “not being vaccinated and having uncontrolled spread of the virus can change fundamental parts of day to day living.”
“Voting is a sacred right, and here’s an example where there will be some people across the country — potentially thousands of people — who won’t be able to vote because of COVID-19 exposure or having active disease.”
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