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    Balancing the right to vote with protecting health


    Russ Francis

    Next BC general election is a “high public heath risk” event

     

    SO FAR THIS YEAR, by-elections in Victoria, Lytton and Rossland, as well as a Kamloops referendum on a new arts centre have all been cancelled because of public health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic. New Brunswick postponed its municipal elections—scheduled for last May 11—till 2021. And Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was expected to announce a general election last spring, but has since said it will be held in October, 2020 because of COVID-19.

    Few medical experts presently forecast the end of the pandemic by October 16 of 2021, when BC is due to head to the polls. BC chief electoral officer Anton Boegman also appears doubtful that things will be back to normal by then. At the June 11 tele-meeting of the elections advisory committee, Boegman said it is “highly likely” that the next by-election or election in BC will occur during the pandemic.

     

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    BC chief electoral officer Anton Boegman

     

    “It goes without saying that the best approach, when public health risk is highest, is likely to defer or postpone an election,” said Boegman, according to meeting minutes. “When the public health risk is lower, however, it is possible to hold an election in a safe and accessible manner, and one in which voters do not have to choose between exercising their democratic franchise and protecting their health.”

    “As an election is an event in which millions of British Columbians participate, it is a high-risk event from a public health perspective,” Boegman told the meeting. “Many election processes will necessarily need to be adapted in order to keep voters and election workers safe, as well as to maintain the necessary accessibility to the ballot box and the overall integrity of the electoral process.”

    Consequently, Elections BC is actively preparing, in case the election occurs as scheduled on October 16 next year. It is now tracking down sources for protective equipment, and for large quantities of vote-by-mail packages. Based on recent US experience, as many as 40 percent of votes could be cast via mail. Elections BC is also considering providing a face mask to every voter—not an easy thing to do in these days of short supply. Voters may each be handed their own pens, to take home, rather than have staff wipe down each pen after use. And to reduce election-day numbers, it expects to add more in-person early voting days.

    “Which adaptations are essential will to some extent depend on the state of the pandemic in our province at the time of the electoral event, and on the public health guidance of the Provincial Health Officer [Dr Bonnie Henry],” said Boegman.

    One traditional facet of campaigning will almost certainly be absent: Door knocking. But without trooping round the neighbourhood, how is a candidate supposed to get the signatures required to be even nominated? Asked an unnamed meeting participant: “Could this be done online?” Answered Boegman: “We have flagged this as an issue already, and we have no solution as yet.”

    Under the Election Act, the cabinet decides when to hold an election. However, once it has been called, Boegman can delay it because of special circumstances, said Elections BC communications director Andrew Watson in an email to Focus.

    For those still wanting to vote in person, Elections BC is ordering two-metre distancing, a 50-person limit in voting places, a preferred 5 square metres of open space per person, a maximum group size of 6, the provision of hand sanitizers, and increased cleaning of voting stations.

    The spacing requirements means that preferred voting places will be large—like school gymnasiums—and will have separate entrances and exits. Current distancing requirements are sure to be in effect during voting, said Boegman. “The population will likely not have sufficient immunity by next fall to rescind the distancing directive.”

     

    Russ Francis is convinced that Alberta’s recent decision to permit open-pit coal mines in the Foothills is based on the same implied, perverted logic used to justify BC’s $6 billion handout to LNG Canada: To boost jobs, we must wreck the planet

     

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    BC currently has no provincial health officer order restricting door-to-door canvassing, according to a July 14 health ministry statement sent in response to an emailed  Focus query. However, said the statement, "Dr [Bonnie] Henry emphasizes the importance of physical distancing and other public health measures such as wearing masks, clean hand hygiene and staying home when you are sick."

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