COVID-19 created barriers for voters
Long lines and a reduction in polling places impacted Canadians’ ability to vote

Many voters struggled to vote in this year’s election due to COVID-19, with some ultimately failing to cast a ballot despite their best efforts.

Elections Canada reduced the number of polling stations and warned voters to expect long lineups as a result of additional COVID-19 protocols and staff shortages.

Despite the barriers caused by COVID-19, 62 per cent of eligible voters participated — a drop from recent years, but roughly average for contemporary Canadian elections.

The previous two federal elections featured higher voter turnout, with 67 per cent in 2019 and 68.3 per cent in 2015.

Prior to 1988, federal elections regularly featured turnout of around 75 per cent.

A record number of voters — roughly 850,000 — used mail-in ballots.

Although ridings had fewer polling stations, more booths were available at each station, meaning the number of voting booths overall was relatively unchanged.

However, voters still faced barriers, such as longer distances to understaffed polling stations.

Since schools in Manitoba were not allowed to host polling stations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, voters cast their ballots at a number of unconventional polling stations, including IKEA, shopping malls and the Assiniboia Downs racetrack.

There were about 15,400 polling stations in 2019 and 14,400 available this year, with 3,760 advance polling stations in comparison to 2019’s 3,800.

Disabled and elderly struggle, sick voters left with no options

Voters who tested positive for COVID-19 the week before the election, but after the deadline for advance and mail-in voting, had no means to vote, as they were required to self-isolate on election day.

In a statement to the Manitoban, spokesperson Matthew McKenna defended Elections Canada’s performance.

“For this election, we did our best to make sure Canadians were aware of the voting options available, and of the important dates and deadlines so that they could make a plan and find options that worked best for them — particularly because of the risk of situations where they might miss an opportunity to vote due to a late COVID diagnosis,” McKenna said.

Elections Canada apologized that many older voters, parents with young children and people with disabilities were unable to vote due to long lineups but insisted COVID-19 restrictions left them with few options.

“We did our best to inform electors that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, their voting experience might be different at this election, including the fact that they may have to travel further to go and vote, or that they might be voting at a location that was less familiar to them,” McKenna said.

“We also tried to make clear that this might impact the overall accessibility of polling locations.”

Elections Canada also said voter information cards and the Elections Canada website contained details on the accessibility of various polling stations for the elderly or disabled.

“We let electors know that if a polling place is not accessible, they may be issued a transfer certificate to allow them to vote at an accessible polling place in their electoral district.”

Indigenous leaders critical

Numerous Indigenous leaders have criticized Trudeau’s decision to call an election during a pandemic, with some describing it as “opportunistic” and predicting low voter turnout as a result.

A recent APTN News poll of elected and community Indigenous leaders found unanimous opposition to the decision.

Indigenous communities have been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic due to poor health-care access and many felt containing the virus should have taken precedence over calling an early election.

Elections Canada stated they worked extensively with Indigenous communities “months before the election was called” to ensure voting access and safety. They listed numerous services offered to Indigenous communities, including a call centre to communicate with band administrations about their voting needs and provide election materials in Indigenous languages.

“Voting options available on a First Nation reserve will depend on the health and safety situation at each place,” McKenna said.

“Voting options will vary based on local circumstances and timing will depend on the option(s) chosen.”

“Local returning officers consult with administrators on reserve to make the best plan possible under the existing circumstances,” he said.

Indigenous communities still faced significant challenges in this election, with many Indigenous people receiving voting cards with inaccurate information.

Additionally, three fly-in First Nations in the Kenora, Ont. riding had no polling stations available on election day.

McKenna had little to say regarding the timing of the election.

“Elections Canada’s mandate is to be ready to deliver an election at any time.”