Elections Ontario is encouraging residents to request mail-in ballots or take advantage of extra days of advanced voting this year with the intention of thinning polling station crowds on the province’s first — and hopefully only — provincial election day amid COVID-19.
Political parties are currently making pandemic campaign plans and contingency arrangements as the official campaign start nears, but the body that administers Ontario’s elections has had a possible pandemic election in its sights for a long time.
Chief electoral officer Greg Essensa wrote to the chief medical officer of health in the summer of 2020 asking for a task force, and the two offices have been meeting regularly since then, he said. Elections Ontario is taking the advice of the top doctor as well as looking at how other jurisdictions have run elections over the past two years.
When voters show up on June 2, they will see floor signage for physical distancing, Plexiglas screens, hand sanitizer and masks available — face coverings won’t be required of voters or staff but will be supplied for those who want one.
But Essensa is hoping many voters consider avoiding ballot boxes on June 2 altogether.
“I think one of the things that we’re really trying to do this election is really look at flattening the curve of the vote,” he said in an interview.
“Traditionally in Ontario — it has always been this way — probably 85 to 90 per cent of those who vote, vote on election day … we want electors to vote when it’s convenient for them, when the time is right for them, ensuring that they can come and vote in a safe, secure fashion. Really, that’s our ultimate goal.”
Advanced voting to last 10 days
This year, there will be 10 days of advanced voting, up from five, Essensa said, and the local returning officer can move the poll location. It could be held for a few days in one community, then a few days in another community in the riding, which will be particularly helpful for rural areas, he said.
As well, Elections Ontario has a new online process to apply for a mail-in ballot. People can sign up from May 4 to May 27 and the local returning officer has to have the ballot by 6 p.m. on election day.
Other provinces that have held pandemic elections have seen significant increases in demand for voting by mail, Essensa said.
Ontario only had about 10,000 people vote by mail in the 2018 election, but this year it will likely be far more. In last year’s federal election, 300,000 of the mail-in ballots came from Ontario, Essensa said.
On the campaign trail, the NDP is still planning to prioritize in-person events for leader Andrea Horwath, but will have a number of public health measures in place, said the party’s executive director.
“[With virtual events] there is something that is lost, that sort of warm, human feeling that you get when you’re in a room with folks,” Lucy Watson said in an interview.
“The virtual events that we’ve done have been hugely successful, tremendous turnout, tremendous energy, and I think folks have still been able to make that connection. But, again, our preference and our priority is certainly to have the leader meet with Ontarians in their communities.”
Parties pledge to follow public health rules
Planning is still underway, but many events will likely look like a rally Horwath held last Sunday — outdoors with masks required, Watson said. All candidates and any volunteer who will interact with a member of the public are fully vaccinated, she said.
When canvassing, the party is “strongly encouraging” candidates and volunteers to stay masked, Watson said. Recently, one incumbent candidate tested positive for COVID-19 a day after door knocking in her riding. She and others in that situation will adhere to all isolation guidelines, Watson said.
The party also plans to have a COVID compliance staff member as part of the central campaign, she said.
“We believe that it’s our shared responsibility to mitigate risk, and our primary goal is to ensure that activities are safe for the volunteers and the campaigners, the candidates and for the members of the public who are interacting with them,” Watson said.
The Liberals came under fire from some supporters for a recent indoor event at which candidates appeared unmasked, though public health rules were followed. Party spokeswoman Beckie Codd-Downey said for the duration of the campaign they will continue to follow restrictions.
“Our candidates are all vaccinated and future candidates will be as well,” she said in a statement. “[Leader Steven Del Duca] loves to be out on the road connecting with people and we plan to continue as long as it’s safe.”
Becky Smit, the Ontario Greens’ campaign chair, said they will follow the advice of public health experts.
“That includes taking precautions like masking and physical distancing at indoor events, and using outdoor spaces when possible,” she said in a written statement. “We’re running a versatile and flexible campaign and are ready to pivot as needed.”
A statement from the Progressive Conservatives said the party “will continue to follow all public health rules.”
As the campaign approaches, Elections Ontario has launched a new app, which will let voters map their poll locations, see candidate information, options on ways to vote and get notifications when a new candidate is registered. It also provides an electronic version of the voter information card, complete with barcode.