Elections Ontario is encouraging residents to request mail-in ballots or take advantage of extra days of early voting this year in an effort to reduce crowds at polling places in the first – and hopefully only – province’s provincial election day amid COVID-19.
Political parties are currently developing pandemic campaign plans and contingency arrangements as the official start of campaigning nears, but the body that administers Ontario’s elections has long considered a possible pandemic election.
Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa wrote to the Chief Medical Officer of Health in the summer of 2020 requesting the creation of a task force, and the two offices have been meeting regularly since then, he said. Elections Ontario takes advice from the top doctor and looks at how other jurisdictions have run elections over the past two years.
When voters turn up on June 2, they will see floor signage for physical distancing, plexiglass screens, hand sanitizer and masks available – face coverings will not be required of voters or staff but will be provided to those who want one.
But Essensa hopes many voters will consider avoiding the polls altogether on June 2.
“I think one of the things we’re really trying to do this election is really flatten the voting curve,” he said in an interview.
“Traditionally in Ontario—it’s always been that way—probably 85% to 90% of those who vote, vote on election day…we want voters to vote when it’s convenient for them, when it’s convenient for them, making sure they can come and vote safely. Really, that’s our ultimate goal.
Advance voting up to 10 days
This year there will be 10 days of advance voting, instead of five, Essensa said, and the local returning officer can move the polling location. It could be held for a few days in one community and then a few days in another community in the constituency, which will be especially helpful for rural areas, he said.
Additionally, Elections Ontario has a new online process for requesting an absentee ballot. People can register from May 4 to May 27, and the local returning officer must have the ballot by 6 p.m. on election day.
Other provinces that have held pandemic elections have seen a significant increase in demand for mail-in voting, Essensa said.
Ontario only had about 10,000 people who voted by mail in the 2018 election, but this year it will likely be many more. In last year’s federal election, 300,000 of the mail-in ballots came from Ontario, Essensa said.
During the election campaign, the NDP still plans to prioritize in-person events for Leader Andrea Horwath, but will put in place a number of public health measures, the party’s executive director said.
“[With virtual events] there’s something that gets lost, that kind of warm, human feeling that you get when you’re in a room with people,” Lucy Watson said in an interview.
“The virtual events that we’ve done have been a huge success, great turnout, great energy, and I think people have been able to make that connection again. But, again, our preference and our priority is definitely that the leader meets Ontarians in their communities.”
The parties undertake to respect the rules of public health
Planning is still underway, but many events will likely resemble a rally hosted by Horwath last Sunday — outdoors with mandatory masks, Watson said. All contestants and any volunteers who will interact with a member of the public are fully vaccinated, she said.
When soliciting, the party “strongly encourages” candidates and volunteers to remain masked, Watson said. Recently, an incumbent candidate tested positive for COVID-19 a day after knocking on the door in her constituency. She and others in that situation will follow 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 it is our shared responsibility to mitigate risk, and our main objective is to ensure that activities are safe for volunteers and activists, candidates and members of the public who interact with them,” said said Watson.
The Liberals came under fire from some supporters at a recent indoor event in which candidates appeared unmasked, despite public health rules being followed. Party spokeswoman Beckie Codd-Downey said that for the duration of the campaign they would continue to follow the restrictions.
“Our candidates are all vaccinated and future candidates will be too,” she said in a statement. “[Leader Steven Del Duca] enjoy being on the road connecting with people and we plan to continue as long as it’s safe.”
Becky Smit, campaign chair for the Ontario Greens, said they would follow the advice of public health experts.
“This includes taking precautions like masking and physical distancing at indoor events, and using outdoor spaces when possible,” she said in a written statement. “We run a versatile and flexible campaign and are ready to evolve as needed.”
A statement from the Progressive Conservatives said the party “will continue to follow all public health rules.”
Ahead of the campaign, Elections Ontario has launched a new app, which will allow voters to map their polling locations, view candidate information, options on how to vote, and receive notifications when a new candidate is registered. It also provides an electronic version of the voter information card, with barcode.