Canada election 2021: ‘Why’ we’re having an election isn’t clear to Canadian voters, expert says

Campaigning for the September 20 election is well underway following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s request to dissolve Parliament on August 15, with party leaders making appearances across the country. Amid the campaigning, questions are rising about whether the surprise of a snap election will bear consequences at the polls.

“A good way of thinking about why people turn out to vote and when they do so is thinking about the costs and benefits of voting,” said Eric Merkley, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. “When costs of voting are higher, we might expect voter turnout to be reduced to some degree, especially among individuals that perceive that cost to be most salient.”

The start of campaigning comes alongside confirmation this month from Canada’s top public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam that the country has officially entered the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some Canadians are expressing concerns about what the fourth wave will mean for voter turnout and the safety of voters.

Merkley told Yahoo Canada that “COVID-19 is top of mind to voters.” Regarding the health effects of COVID-19, he added that there is a perception that “in-person voting entails a risk during the pandemic, that otherwise wouldn’t be the case in normal times.”

Merkley has been involved with the Media Ecosystem Observatory, an interdisciplinary team of scholars that have looked at COVID-19 attitudes and behaviours in Canada on topics including voter turnout.

“In our own research, we found using a series of experiments that getting people to think about COVID-19 reduces their intention to vote,” he said. For voters that are concerned about their health risks, the pandemic might have an impact that might “depress turnout slightly.”

Merkley elaborated that there are “lots of contexts” that can influence voter turnout throughout an election beyond specifically COVID-19.

One factor that might decrease voter turnout in this context, for instance, is that a lot of people probably aren’t sure why there’s an election. There might not be a lot of engagement with this election because they’re unsure of the stakes.Eric Merkley, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto

Merkley said that when “the reasons for the election aren’t being clearly communicated,” people can become less engaged.

The unique circumstances of the snap election have also resulted in new challenges for electoral officials and voter engagement organizations.

Canadians likely won't have results on election night

Canada’s chief electoral officer Stéphane Perrault conducted a news conference on August 18, where he mentioned that this election will differ from what Canadians have seen before.

“I know that Canadians are used to getting complete results on election night, but it will be different for this election,” said Perrault. “The count of mail-in ballots will start after the election date, once all the mail-in ballots that electors have dropped off at polling stations have been returned, and integrity checks have been performed.”

Perrault said that the count could take up to five days after the polls close in some locations.”If the volume of mail-in ballots is high, as we’ve seen in other jurisdictions during the pandemic, it will take longer for returning officers to count those ballots.”

For organizations that specialize in civic engagement, the conditions of the snap election will result in changes to their practices.

Canvassing for votes isn't same during pandemic

Amber Iqbal is a representative for The Canadian Muslim Vote (TCMV), a non-partisan nonprofit organization focused on increasing civic education and engagement. They focus on the Muslim community as one of several groups that historically face lower voter turnout.

“One of the biggest things that holds people back is their mindset, where they think that their vote isn’t going to make a difference,” she said. “But everyone does have a right to vote, and we’re here to remind people that they should use that right, and that their vote does make a difference. Every single vote does count for something.”

Iqbal told Yahoo Canada that elections held during the pandemic have resulted in some setbacks for the organization’s voter engagement practices.

“A lot of our work was focused on doing so many things in-person, that’s one of the things we love here at TCMV. We got to engage with people at mosques, or community centres, through door knocking, canvassing, things like that,” she said. “It’s something that we love to do, and we find it’s very effective, but obviously with the pandemic that’s a hard no.”

“We’re going to try to do a couple of in-person things when we can, but it’s definitely not going to be the way it used to be,” she said.

Iqbal said the loss of in-person opportunities to encourage voters has “definitely been a bit of a challenge,” but the organization has a digital campaign ready to go out.

With elections underway in a little over a month, the timeline for TCMV to connect with voters has been significantly shortened. However, Iqbal says that they’re up to the challenge: “As an organization that is focused towards civic engagement, we try to be prepared for anything that could happen, so we do have a robust plan in place.”