Sorry, Toronto Centre residents, but the number of election polls in your riding has been reduced by 84 percent.
Sincere apologies, university and college students, but the Vote on Campus program has been axed.
Pardon us, Indigenous communities, but a paltry $100 is all we’re willing to offer to use your community hall on elections day – and clean-up costs will be on you.
2021 has certainly put the “snap” in snap election.
With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unsatisfied at having to share power, Canadians find themselves thrust into an early federal election, the first in a decade. As the campaign began to unfold, details gradually emerged that this election wouldn’t be quite what Canadians had become accustomed to.
Voting – the entire point of an election – would be a more cumbersome task.
Locations where Canadians cast their ballots – polling stations – were reduced in number, drastically in some ridings, especially in Ontario. The Vote on Campus program that had been tremendously successful at encouraging tertiary students to vote, often for the first time, was mothballed. And, if unconfirmed reports are accurate, Elections Canada didn’t exactly exert itself to ensure Indigenous people could vote in their community, allegedly offering low compensation for rental venues on some reserves.
When asked why voting would be available at fewer places this year, Elections Canada offered two alibis: the pandemic, and the “minority government situation” (or more accurately, the early election).
These excuses are somewhat reasonable. To avoid COVID transmission, Elections Canada has hired fewer but larger venues to serve as polling stations. This explains why the quantity has been curtailed, although whether the reduction need be so severe is questionable, as it’s particularly impactful on disabled and elderly voters.
However, the adjournment of the Vote on Campus program is especially unwelcome. Born as a response to the 2008 election’s woefully low turnout rate, which plummeted to a depth unseen since the late 1800s, the program facilitated convenient voting for university and college students, resulting in a hefty boost to turnout in the 2015 and 2019 elections.
Cancelling student-focused election polls is especially irksome considering that Elections Canada will continue to operate polling stations at seniors’ residences and long-term care facilities. Voting should be convenient for every demographic, but withdrawing services aimed at Canadians with the lowest turnout rate while preserving similar programs for those with the highest voting levels is a perplexing decision.
It’s important to realize that previous efforts to expand voter outreach, such as the Vote on Campus program, were possible due to the implementation of fixed election dates. Scheduling the 2015 and 2019 elections years in advance allowed Elections Canada the certainty to organize a variety of new methods to encourage people to vote.
And that’s the problem with Trudeau’s snap election: despite the repeated hints, it technically came as a surprise to Elections Canada bureaucrats, who are left with a mere 36 days to organize an early election, rather than four years. Due to logistical constraints, programs such as Vote on Campus became a casualty, as undoubtedly so too will the turnout rate.
Unfortunately for voter engagement efforts, 2021 isn’t likely to be Canada’s last snap election. Our Parliament doesn’t feature set “terms” like in American politics – instead, we have parliamentary confidence, and the loss of confidence can trigger general elections at any time.
Hung parliaments, which typically result in minority governments, have become the norm in Canada – four of the past six federal elections have ended without a majority government. The combination of a minority government and the first-past-the-post electoral system encourages the governing party to risk triggering a snap election whenever the polls look favourable to them, in the hope of increasing their seat count.
All of this threatens Elections Canada’s efforts to spend four years organizing expanded voter outreach, as a snap election can nullify years of planning.
But rather than bash the Prime Minister for calling a snap election – a perfectly valid action in Westminster parliamentary systems – we should instead ask how Elections Canada’s expanded voter outreach can be maintained in the event of early elections. And there’s no better way to do that than to invest in Canada’s democracy by giving Elections Canada more resources.
There are multiple ways to achieve this. One would be to increase Elections Canada’s budget, enabling them to hire more staff and not feel pressured to allegedly make insultingly low bids for rental venues. But there are also more inventive options, such as having a pool of federal civil servants available to be seconded to Elections Canada in the event of a snap election call.
Bestowing Elections Canada with additional resources to deal with snap elections isn’t a perfect solution, and would never be as seamless as elections that occur on their scheduled dates. For example, no matter how well Elections Canada is staffed, having only 36 days’ notice to book voting venues isn’t ideal. But because much of the logistical pinch is trying to force four years of work into just over five weeks, wielding the extra staff to hire venues should prevent polling stations from dwindling too low in number, and allow programs such as Vote on Campus to continue.
Considering the tremendous achievements at boosting voter turnout over the past decade, it would be indolent to shrug with indifference at the challenges that snap elections present. But Elections Canada can’t bridge the resources gap on their own: they require additional support from the government.
In the context of recent challenges to Western democracy, Canada can’t risk allowing voter turnout to decline, especially when snap elections are an expected occurrence in our parliamentary system. It’s particularly important that we encourage young adults to vote for the first time, which makes programs such as Vote on Campus absolutely vital.
If Canada is already paying more than $600 million to stage a general election, we might as well add a sprinkling of additional resources if it results in increased participation. For what are the costs of eroded democracy?