An Outbreak of Snap Election Fever During a Pandemic


Whenever Canadian journalists get bored or run out of other things on which to write, they often engage in idle speculation about snap elections. This time John Ivison of The National Post became Patient Zero in this latest strain of Snap Election Fever on 6 May, followed the next day by Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star. Philippe Fournier of Maclean’s (who, I’m told, is an astrophysicist and not a journalist per se) joined in with another forceful intervention on 24 May.  

All this culminated in a fit of circular logic on 27 May when reporters asked Prime Minister Trudeau about a snap election based on the speculation that their colleagues had created in the first place earlier this month. CTV News quote the Prime Minister:

Trudeau shut down the speculation of a snap vote, saying he hasn’t heard many Canadians “demanding an election right now.”

“But obviously, in a minority Parliament, Parliament gets to decide when it no longer has confidence in the government.”

“There will be many challenges that we will face over the coming years as to how we improve the Canadian economy, how we make better digital changes, how we move forward on a greener and cleaner economy, how we support our most vulnerable in better ways. And there will be many debates in Parliament, and eventually in an election. But I’m not going to speculate on when that might be.” 

Normally, I wouldn’t become too perturbed by this standard manifestation of journalistic boredom, the silly speculation of snap elections as a means of drumming up support for a snap election that no one in government has ever suggested, but I find this latest outbreak pernicious and foolish. Surely, these journalists and the astrophysicist cannot sincerely believe that we should hold a snap federal election less than a year or only about one year after the last scheduled general election in October 2019 in the midst of a possible second wave of pandemic, not seen on this scale for a century, which has necessitated physical distancing as a means of slowing and preventing the spread of a novel and still not entirely understood respiratory virus for which there is no vaccine.

Holding an election under these circumstances is impossible in any normal sense of what election campaigns in Canada mean, and it would brazenly violate all the rules and emergency measures that the federal and provincial governments of this country have implemented. We cannot hold mass gatherings of hundreds of people to listen to political speeches or attend rallies. Candidates and their volunteer supporters cannot go door-knocking across thousands or tens of thousands of households per riding and stand directly in front of citizens on their doorsteps and breathe moistly into their faces. Party leader should not fly around the country, potentially visiting several cities or provinces a day with a coterie of campaign staff and journalists in tow. And we cannot crowd together in massive line ups at polling stations on election day and advanced voting days.

Most importantly, we cannot expect Elections Canada to administer and run an unscheduled general federal election with practically no preparation during a pandemic. Saskatchewan’s fixed-date election law will force this province to embark on an experiment in a pandemic election on 26 October 2020. But Saskatchewan’s Chief Electoral Officer, Anthony Boda, advised the Moe government that he needed additional authority from a new Order-in-Council to take measures to protect voters and election workers in light of the pandemic. The Government of Saskatchewan has done so by “clearly defin[ing] a public health emergency as an emergency under The Elections Act and giv[ing] the Chief Electoral Officer the power to adapt any provision of the Act as necessary to reduce a health risk to the public.”[1]

But we could not pin our hopes on mail-in ballots as a means of maintaining physical-distancing during a snap election. Boda ruled out the possibility of using mail-in ballots as the default, telling CBC News that Elections Saskatchewan would need at least one year to plan such a drastic change.[2] Other experts in administering elections corroborate Boda’s assessment. For instance, Shawn Pollock, a former director within Elections Ontario and manager within Elections Canada, has argued that relying on mail-in ballots, what he calls Vote-by-Mail, as the default method of voting would require ample planning and that elections agencies must first “consider the full risks that VBM brings […] into 3 different categories: Logistical Problems, Clerical Errors, and Nefarious Interference.”[3] At the very least, it seems reasonable to conclude that Elections Canada, like its counterpart in Saskatchewan, would need months of planning to prepare to administer an election during a pandemic – something that a snap election, by definition, would not allow. Perhaps I have given this rubbish too much credence by commenting on it myself, but I could not let this latest bout of Snap Election Fever stand unopposed under these circumstances. The 43rd Parliament can last until September 2023 for a scheduled election in October 2023; even minority parliaments in Canada last closer to two years than one. Let’s be reasonable and give Elections Canada plenty of leeway and time to prepare as necessary.

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Notes

[1] Saskatchewan, “Government Gives Chief Electoral Officer Clear Authority to Ensure a Safe Election,” 13 May 2020.

[2] Adam Hunter, “Saskatchewan Government Gives Top Electoral Official Emergency Power for Fall Election,” CBC News, 13 May 2020.

[3] Shawn Pollock, “Your Ballot Is in the Mail!” Blog on LinkedIn, 12 May 2020.

About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively in my field. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Dissolution, Fixed-Date Elections. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Outbreak of Snap Election Fever During a Pandemic

  1. P B says:

    An excellent post, as usual.
    Your main objection to the possibility of a snap election appears to be that it would be impractical in a pandemic setting. This fails to account for the Liberal Party’s affinity for power and its commitment to maintaining it, however. If the LPC determines that they have a better chance of maintaining power with a snap election, I’m sure that they will call one (particularly if they can blame the election on, say, the intransigence of the Opposition).

    I would also note that Election Canada itself is looking at the voting mechanisms required under a pandemic. Their thoughts are here, and suggest that such an election is not as far-fetched as it may seem: https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=med&dir=cor&document=index&lang=e

    Like

  2. Rand Dyck says:

    You’re so right, James. Anyone even THINKING of the POSSIBILITY of election now should be put in the stocks!

    Like

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