Two byelections will test Liberal support — and Canada’s preparations for a pandemic election

September 19, 2020
Two byelections will test Liberal support — and Canada's preparations for a pandemic election

Every byelection serves as a public test of a government’s popularity. When voters go to the polls in two federal byelections next month, however, they’ll also be testing something else — how prepared Canada’s elections system is to hold a nationwide vote in the middle of a global pandemic.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that byelections will be held in the ridings of Toronto Centre and York Centre on Oct. 26. The winners will fill the vacancies left in the House of Commons in August when Liberal MP Michael Levitt and former finance minister Bill Morneau both resigned.

Earlier in the week, Trudeau said that Canada’s democratic institutions are strong enough to handle the COVID-19 emergency and pushed back against the suggestion that holding an election mid-pandemic would be reckless.

He might have been thinking primarily of these two byelections. The law requires that byelections be called within six months of a seat becoming vacant, with the campaign lasting between 36 and 50 days. That means these votes had to be called by the end of February and held by early April.

While case numbers have been increasing in Ontario — particularly in Toronto, where the two vacant ridings are located — there is no telling how the situation could change over the next six months. Health experts have long warned that the number of new cases of COVID-19 was likely to rise over the fall and winter — possibly beyond the numbers the country was seeing in the spring.

So it’s not an ideal time to be holding byelections — but it might be far safer to hold them now than to wait and hope that the situation improves in the near term.

Voting experience to be different

Holding off on calling the byelections might have given the government more time, however — time to push through some of the legislative changes Elections Canada has said it is considering recommending to prepare for a pandemic general election.

One of those proposed changes would extend election “day” to cover an entire weekend, rather than limiting voting to a Monday.

That would reduce the number of voters inside a polling location at any one time and increase the availability of potential voting places such as schools, which otherwise might be full of students.

The early call means that Elections Canada can only make changes within existing elections law. That means Elections Canada can maintain physical distancing in polling locations, require that all poll workers wear masks and supply voters with single-use pencils. (Voters also can request special ballots in the mail but that option was available to them before the pandemic hit.)

On Monday, New Brunswick became the first jurisdiction in Canada to hold an election during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Those changes might mean longer lines on voting day and a delay in reporting the results (the people counting the ballots need to be physically distanced, too) but otherwise, the byelections should unfold as they would normally.

This isn’t a normal situation, of course. The recent experience of New Brunswick — the first jurisdiction in Canada to hold an election during the pandemic — can act as a guide. But New Brunswick’s pandemic experience has been very different from that of Toronto. Since March, New Brunswick has reported 194 cases of COVID-19. Toronto reported 215 new cases on Thursday and Friday alone.

Byelections can be conducted with less fanfare than a general election, of course. There won’t be a need for leaders to embark on cross-country tours and nobody’s expected to organize massive rallies.

Still, these byelections will serve as a test of how well a vote can be conducted in the context of an outbreak that is spreading, rather than one that is under control.

Toronto Centre a safe seat for big Liberal names

Regardless of how well the voting goes, the Liberals are likely to hold on to both of these ridings. That’s especially the case for Toronto Centre, which has voted Liberal in every election since 1993.

Morneau won Toronto Centre with 57 per cent of the vote in the 2019 federal election, defeating the NDP’s Brian Chang by a margin of 35 percentage points. That nearly matched his score in 2015, when Morneau won the riding for the first time with 58 per cent of the vote and a margin of 31 points.

Even in 2011, when the Liberals were at their lowest ebb nationwide, they still held the riding by a comfortable margin of 11 points.

Television broadcaster Marci Ien has been named as the Liberal candidate. She is only the latest high-profile name to carry the Liberal banner in the riding. Before Morneau, the seat was held by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and interim leaders Bob Rae and Bill Graham.

Ien starts out with high name recognition in a safe Liberal seat. It would be a tremendous upset for the Liberals if she were to lose it.

York Centre voted Conservative in 2011

It also would be an upset for the Liberals to lose York Centre — but it would not be nearly as surprising.

Levitt won the seat in 2019 with 50 per cent of the vote, beating the Conservatives’ Rachel Wilson by 13.5 points. But that was a much more comfortable margin than the one he managed in 2015, when Levitt ousted incumbent Mark Adler by just three points.

In 2011, when Stephen Harper secured a majority government for his Conservative Party, Adler won York Centre by a margin of 15 points over the Liberals.

That Conservative breakthrough was historically unusual. With the exception of the 2011 election, the Liberals have won the seat in every election held since 1962. Before Adler, it had last voted for the Conservatives during the time of John Diefenbaker.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole (left) will be looking to make progress in ridings like York Centre, which his party last won in the 2011 federal election. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

The Conservatives can still be expected to campaign hard for York Centre this time. It’s a suburban Toronto riding and the corresponding provincial riding was won easily by the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in the 2018 provincial election — making it exactly the kind of seat Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole will need to win to form a government of his own.

There haven’t been many signs that the seat is about to swing, however. Polls in Ontario show the Liberals have just as much support in the province today as they did last October, with the Conservatives slipping a little. Overcoming a 13.5-point gap might be too much to ask of the new Conservative leader.

But closing that gap would be a good sign that O’Toole is leading the party in the right direction. The Liberals, on the other hand, want a signal that they have not lost ground over things like the WE Charity controversy — and that voters feel their efforts to fight the pandemic have been effective.

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