Your federal-election questions — answered

How does mail-in voting work? What role does the Governor General play? And why are we having an election during a pandemic? rounds up expert answers to these questions, and more
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Aug 19, 2021
The federal election will be held on September 20. (Graham Hughes/CP)



Come hell or high water, a federal election will be taking place on September 20. It was called on August 15, just days after Canada’s chief public-health officer, Theresa Tam, had said that the country had entered a fourth wave of the pandemic. 

Explaining the timing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canadians deserve to have their voices heard and decide how the country will move forward. “You need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better,” he wrote on Twitter. “That’s what #elxn44 is about.”

This is the first federal campaign to be held during the pandemic in Canada, and a lot of people have questions about it. So took some of those questions — plus some of our own — to the experts. Here’s what they had to say. 

So why are we having an election now — during a pandemic? 

While Canadians were scheduled to take to the polls on October 16, 2023 — four years after the last federal election — a prime minister can request that an election take place before the end of their allotted four-year term. And, on Sunday, that’s what Trudeau did, requesting that newly appointed Governor General Mary Simon move to dissolve Parliament and trigger an election. 

In the last federal election, in 2019, Trudeau’s Liberals won a minority government. With such governments, there tends to be “a little more discussion and debate regarding certain initiatives and having to get support from the other party,” explains Holly Ann Garnett, an associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, and director of the Electoral Integrity Project. (In June, Trudeau vented about “obstructionism” in Parliament hindering his government’s agenda.) Minority governments in Canada generally last around 18 months.  

“The prime minister has mentioned the logic behind the decision as being that there are going to be a lot of big decisions coming up about post-pandemic recovery,” says Garnett. “If you’re more cynical, you might say something along the lines of, ‘The prime minister notes that, in the polls, he is doing quite well … and this is a chance, then, to solidify his minority or perhaps achieve a majority.’”

While some — including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh — have criticized the move to hold an election during COVID-19, Tam has said it will be safe to go to the polls if precautions are followed. Garnett also points out that, since the pandemic began, provincial elections have been held in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan. In each case, she notes, the incumbent government was re-elected. “People have this response of, ‘Why the heck are we having an election right now?’ — but it doesn't seem to really end up factoring into much punishment for the incumbent government.”

Could a Governor General actually refuse to dissolve Parliament? 

Technically, they could, but the move would come with serious risks and hasn't happened in nearly a century, says Errol P. Mendes, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Ottawa. 

“The [Governor General] is the Queen’s representative in Canada, and, under our Constitution, it's primarily a symbolic role,” he says, noting the exception of some reserve powers, including the granting of the dissolution of Parliament. “In theory, yes, they can refuse the dissolution, and, to some extent, in a situation where the very foundations of the Constitution are at stake, there is a chance he or she could [refuse]. But, for over a century, it has been clear that there are grave dangers in the Governor General refusing.” 

Nearly a hundred years ago, in 1926, Governor General Julian Byng refused Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s request to dissolve Parliament. King was briefly put out of office, but he campaigned in the subsequent election on the Governor General’s refusal and won a majority, Mendes says. 

How do I register to vote? 

First, you need to be at least 18 years old and a Canadian citizen. Before election day, you can register by going online, by mail, or, if an election has already been called, by going to your local Elections Canada office. You can also register on election day at your polling station. 

Sam Reusch, the executive director of Apathy Is Boring, a youth-led, non-partisan organization that works to engage youth in Canada's democracy, says that, because of the pervasiveness of American media, Canadians sometimes confuse voting issues in that system with those in our own, particularly when it comes to voter registration. “In Canada, you can actually register to vote on election day. You can show up at your polling station, with the correct identification, and you can register on the spot and vote immediately following,” she says. “A lot of people are automatically registered, so it's just a matter of checking that your information is correct.” 

screenshot of Election Canada website with a message that the user is eligible to vote
The author recently moved, so she checked on the Elections Canada website to see whether her voter information was up to date. (Marsha McLeod)

Reusch says that she also encounters the idea that the voting process may take a long time. “We see the long line-ups in the States and fewer polling stations, but here — I think in the last election, it took an average of seven minutes for folks to vote,” she says. “Our system is designed to make it as easy as possible.” 

How will the pandemic affect the election?

Despite the pandemic, “the basic mechanics of how an election works in Canada, according to the Canada Elections Act, are not going to change,” says Garnett, adding that people will be able to vote through the same channels as in normal times. The number of days dedicated to advance polls — four — will also remain the same. 

Matthew McKenna, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, tells that, no matter how Canadians decide to vote, there will be pandemic-related health and safety measures in place. “Voting in person during advance polls or on election day is still the simplest and most efficient way for electors to cast their ballot,” he says.

Safety measures at polls will include mask-wearing by all poll workers, sanitization stations, physical distancing, and directional signage. Voters who “cannot or prefer not to vote on election day or during advance polls” can cast their ballot by mail or at a local Elections Canada office, he says. 

How does mail-in voting work?

If you plan to vote by mail, which is known as using a special ballot, you’ll need to apply online or by contacting any Elections Canada office before 6 p.m. on September 14. If you decide to vote by mail, you won’t be able change your mind later and vote at the polls on election day or in advance polls. 

After you apply, Elections Canada will mail you a voting kit that includes your special ballot, on which you’ll write a candidate’s name. Garnett points out that you need to know your preferred candidate’s name, as the options won’t be listed. Elections Canada also notes on its website that, while it’s okay to list a candidate’s party affiliation beside their name, if you list only a party name, your vote won’t be counted. 

Once you’ve marked your ballot, you’ll put it into the unmarked envelope provided and then into a second envelope with your information on it. Finally, you’ll place that packet into a pre-addressed, pre-paid envelope and put it in the mail or drop it off at your local Elections Canada office or polling station. While Elections Canada checks that it’s received the ballot from the right person, it’s the unmarked envelope that goes into the ballot box, says Garnett. “There's no way of someone tracing back to you who you voted for.”

Are more people expected to vote by mail this year? 

McKenna says a preliminary analysis suggests that between 2 million and 3 million Canadians may vote by special ballot — and most of these will be sent by mail. “We have made significant improvements to our vote-by-mail system to make it more convenient for electors and to allow us to handle more requests while maintaining the integrity of the voting process,” he says. Elections Canada has allotted additional IT resources to its local offices and trained returning officers and poll workers on how to manage the likely surge in mail-in voting, he adds.  

Earlier this month, Election Canada’s chief electoral officer, Stéphane Perrault, told the Canadian Press that voters should be prepared to wait a few days to find out the final results of the election, as Elections Canada will not start counting mail-in ballots until September 21. Perrault said Wednesday that it could take up to five days for mail-in ballots to be counted. 

What goes into the cost of an election?

“The reason elections cost a lot of money is that it's a huge mobilization of the citizenry,” says Garnett, citing expenses related to renting offices, providing telephone and internet services, printing and mailing ballots, staffing a phone hotline, and hiring employees. Elections Canada creates an office largely from scratch in each of the country’s 338 ridings after an election has been called.

That model sets it apart from many other countries, Garnett says, where facilities that already exist, such as municipal offices, are used to manage elections. “It's kind of a neat model. In one sense, it's super-centralized but then, in the other sense, super-decentralized,” she says. “And the tricky thing, of course, is that Elections Canada has to employ all of these people at a moment’s notice whenever there is an election.”

Can Parliament be recalled after being dissolved? 

On Monday, Green party leader Annamie Paul called for an “emergency recall” of Parliament to have a debate over the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, leading several experts to say that was not an option. 

“You can't recall Parliament, because Parliament has been dissolved,” says Mendes. “To get Parliament to do something — a motion or a debate — you need to have sufficient members to have the confidence of the House [of Commons], but if the House does not exist …” After an election has been called, he adds, the government follows what’s known as the Caretaker Convention, which discourages it from taking any new action. “It is incumbent upon a government to act with restraint during an election period,” reads a guideline by the Privy Council Office describing the convention.

Why do some media outlets refer to Justin Trudeau as the “Liberal leader” during the election period?

“The prime minister is the prime minister until he is no longer the prime minister,” says Mendes, explaining that the cabinet continues to operate during the election, and Trudeau is part of the cabinet. And, yes, it is correct to continue calling Trudeau the prime minister throughout the election period, he says. 

While some media outlets, such as CBC News, do not refer to a prime minister by that title in election-related coverage published during the campaign –– to avoid the suggestion of unfair advantage — “that's not really accurate when you're looking at pure constitutional practice,” Mendes says.

What’s the story behind “strategic voting”? 

In a first-past-the-post voting system, in which the candidate who gets the most votes in a riding wins,  some people choose to vote strategically. “Sometimes, depending on where you live, your preferred party might have a lower chance of winning the seat,” says Reusch. “As a result, you might choose to vote for a [different] party who has a better chance of winning” — but one that more closely aligns with your political views than another frontrunner does.

I feel apathetic about the different party platforms and am not sure if I’m going to vote. What should I do? 

“Whether you vote or not, the outcome of the election will impact you, and I think we've seen that through the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Reusch. “The government has a really big impact and role to play in our day-to-day lives.” 

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