Ontario elections offers more opportunities to vote than in person on June 2

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Elections Ontario encourages residents to apply for ballots by mail or take advantage of additional days of advanced voting this year with a view to decreasing polling crowds on the province’s first – and hopefully only – provincial election day amid COVID-19 to thin out.

Political parties are currently planning pandemic campaigns and emergency arrangements as the official campaign start approaches, but the body that administers the elections in Ontario has long had a potential pandemic election in its sights.

Chief electoral officer Greg Essensa wrote to the Chief Medical Officer of Health in the summer of 2020 requesting a task force, and the two offices have met regularly since then, he said. Elections Ontario is taking the best doctor’s advice and looking at how other jurisdictions have conducted elections in the past two years.

When voters turn up on June 2, they will see floor signs for physical distancing, plexiglass screens, hand sanitizer and masks available – face coverings are not required from voters or staff, but will be provided for those who want one.

But Essensa hopes many voters will consider avoiding the June 2 polls altogether.

“I think one of the things we’re really trying to do this election is to flatten the curve of the vote,” he said in an interview.

“Traditionally in Ontario – it always has been – probably 85 to 90 percent of those who vote, vote on Election Day… we want voters to vote when it suits them, when the time is right for them, to make sure that they can vote safely. Really, that’s our ultimate goal.”

Advanced voting up to 10 days

This year there will be 10 days of advanced voting, up from five, Essensa said, and the local returning official can move the voting site. It can be held in one community for a few days, and then at the equestrian center for a few days in another community, which will be especially helpful for rural areas, he said.

Also, Elections Ontario has a new online process to apply for a ballot by mail. People can apply from May 4 to May 27 and the local official must vote before 6 p.m. on Election Day.

Other provinces that have held pandemic elections have seen a significant increase in demand for postal votes, Essensa said.

In Ontario, only about 10,000 people voted by mail in the 2018 election, but there will likely be many more this year. In last year’s federal election, 300,000 of the ballots sent in came from Ontario, Essensa said.

On the campaign trail, the NDP still plans to prioritize in-person events for leader Andrea Horwath but will take a number of public health measures, the party’s executive director said.

During the campaign trail, Andrea Horwath, the Ontario NDP leader, says all candidates and all volunteers who interact with a member of the public have been fully vaccinated. (Erik White/CBC)

†[With virtual events] there’s something that gets lost, that kind of warm, human feeling you get when you’re in a room with people,” Lucy Watson said in an interview.

“The virtual events we’ve done have been hugely successful, a great turnout, a tremendous energy, and I think people have still been able to make that connection. But again, our preference and our priority is definitely to meet the leader with Ontarios in their communities.”

Parties pledge to adhere to public health rules

Planning is still underway, but many events are likely to look like a rally Horwath held last Sunday — outdoors with masks required, Watson said. All candidates and any volunteer who interacts with a member of the public are fully vaccinated, she said.

When recruiting, the party strongly encourages candidates and volunteers to remain masked, Watson said. Recently, a sitting candidate tested positive for COVID-19 a day after knocking on the door. She and others in that situation will adhere to all isolation guidelines, Watson said.

The party also plans to have a COVID compliance officer as part of its central campaign, she said.

“We believe that it is our shared responsibility to mitigate risk, and our primary goal is to ensure that activities are safe for the volunteers and campaigners, the candidates and for the members of the public who interact with them,” said Watson.

The Liberals came under fire from some supporters for a recent indoor event in which candidates appeared unmasked, despite following public health rules. Party spokeswoman Beckie Codd-Downey said they will continue to abide by the restrictions throughout the campaign.

Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca at the party’s annual general meeting in Toronto on Oct. 17, 2021. The party says it will continue to monitor public health restrictions for the duration of the campaign after coming under fire from some supporters for a recent indoor event in which candidates appeared unmasked, although public health rules were followed. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

“Our candidates have all been vaccinated and future candidates will be,” she said in a statement. †[Leader Steven Del Duca] loves being out and about connecting with people and we plan to continue as long as it’s safe.”

Becky Smit, the Ontario Greens’ campaign chairman, said they will follow the advice of public health experts.

“That includes taking precautions such as masking and physical distancing at indoor events, and using outdoor spaces whenever possible,” she said in a written statement. “We are conducting a versatile and flexible campaign and are ready to make adjustments if necessary.”

A statement from the Progressive Conservatives said the party “will continue to follow all public health rules”.

As the campaign approaches, Elections Ontario has launched a new app that allows voters to map their poll locations, see candidate information, options for ways to vote, and get notifications when a new candidate is registered. It also provides an electronic version of the voter information card, complete with barcode.

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