As the sun was setting on September 24, 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a large, open-air rally in Surrey, B.C. Hundreds of supporters crowded around the Liberal leader as he shook hands, posed for selfies and signed autographs, his RCMP detail slowly clearing a path through the crush toward the campaign bus.
That was how they used to do it — big crowds, high contact. Rallies form a major part of most political campaigns; Trudeau’s Liberals built two winning election campaigns in part on large rallies. That was before local health authorities cracked down on large gatherings to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic — a global health emergency that has upended almost every aspect of life in this country, including elections.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau exits a rally during 2019 campaign
The question of how to conduct a political campaign in the midst of a pandemic is a fraught one. The experience of the United States — where the campaign of incumbent President Donald Trump chose to stage large rallies in defiance of public health guidance, and despite warnings that the rallies would serve as “super-spreader” events — shows how public health measures can quickly turn into political flashpoints when votes are at stake.
Every election campaign in Canada is split between the bright lights of the party leaders’ tours and the dogged work of volunteers on the ground, going door to door to in 338 ridings. But the next federal election campaign might see a party leader’s tour reduced to just the leader, the local candidate and the journalists on the bus — while the groundwork might have to change completely.
Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault recently told the Commons procedure and House affairs committee that, as long as the pandemic continues, election campaigns will have follow local public health guidelines, which could differ from riding to riding.
“They will advise on what behaviours are acceptable or advisable … during the pandemic, based on the rates, and those behaviours will inform our ability to safely conduct an election,” he said.
The Trudeau government survived a self-imposed confidence vote last month. If it falls in the near future, or if the next scheduled election campaign happens when pandemic restrictions are still in place, the parties will have to establish unique campaign protocols for each region of the country, depending on the local state of outbreaks.
The Atlantic Bubble problem
Take the case of the 32 ridings in Atlantic Canada. Regulations require any Canadian entering the “Atlantic bubble” to self-isolate for two weeks. That’s not really practical for election campaigns that tend to last 50 days on average. So would leaders’ tours have to take a pass on an entire region because of COVID-19? How would that affect get-out-the-vote efforts?
If the federal parties are asking themselves these questions, they’re not asking Elections Canada yet; the agency tells CBC News the federal parties haven’t sought clarification on how leaders’ tours could be conducted.
Planning leaders’ tours might actually be one of the simpler tasks facing campaign managers in a pandemic election. Campaigns frequently sink or rise on the strength of their door-to-door canvassing.
For the duration of an ordinary campaign, election workers cram themselves into temporary office spaces or carpool to distant neighbourhoods to knock on doors. Those local campaign offices would be far less crowded in a pandemic election, as staffers self-distance and work remotely.
The recent federal byelections in Toronto offered a glimpse of what this throttled-back groundwork might look like. Toronto Centre (one of the most densely populated urban ridings in Canada) and York Centre held byelections when infection rates were running high — as they are today.
Elections Canada asked campaigns to follow local public health regulations and to take some extra precautions: don’t touch doorbells, avoid distributing campaign material (pamphlets, buttons), avoid carpooling (unless you can keep the windows open) and keep party scrutineers away from polls at long-term care centres. Elections Canada didn’t mention the common practice of campaigns driving supporters to polling stations, but it seems likely that it would recommend an approach similar to the rules for carpooling.
But again, conditions on the ground will dictate what campaigns can and can’t do. Canada is experiencing not one pandemic, but many; transmission rates differ substantially between one region and another. Elections Canada tells CBC News that campaign conditions may differ from riding to riding and that local returning officers will give current guidance to local campaign organizations once an election is called.
“We will, of course, follow the guidance of local health authorities. That’s why it’s important in a pandemic election that there be clear contact established locally between the health authorities and the returning officers so that they know who to call during the election and what process to follow.” said Perrault.
The provincial experience
The recent experience of provincial elections shows how political parties can struggle to adapt old campaign techniques to the new conditions of the pandemic. Minority governments in British Columbia and New Brunswick called snap elections — B.C. in late October, New Brunswick in September — and secured themselves majority mandates. Saskatchewan held a fixed-date election last month that returned the governing Saskatchewan Party to power with another majority.
When New Brunswick’s election campaign started in mid-August, the province was reporting fewer than 20 of cases of COVID-19. The campaign started in confusion over how public health restrictions might affect campaigning.
Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters his Progressive Conservatives wouldn’t campaign door to door or leave campaign materials in mailboxes. But People’s Alliance campaign staffers did go door to door, as did a Green Party candidate (briefly). The source of the confusion seemed to be the distinction between “requirement” and “guidance.”
“I wouldn’t say that there was an agreement among the parties about what they would or would not do … certain parties made it very clear that they were not going to do door-to-door campaigning,” New Brunswick’s Chief Electoral Officer Kim Poffenroth told MPs on the House affairs committee.
“I think some started doing door-to-door campaigning but received a negative reaction from householders. When the premier called the election, he indicated that his party would not be doing door-to-door campaigning, and I think there was a misconception that that was a rule we had implemented that applied to everyone. We did get some calls about that, and we said, ‘No, that’s up to individual candidates and parties to determine.'”
The provincial riding of Charlottetown-Winsloe in Prince Edward Island held a byelection recently; the Progressive Conservatives won the seat, giving their government a narrow majority.
P.E.I. Chief Electoral Officer Tim Garrity told MPs on the House affairs committee that two provincial parties decided to campaign door-to-door and two did not.
“The two parties that decided to do door-to-door campaigning did have to submit a plan to our chief public health officer to ensure that it met with their standards and guidelines, and it had to be approved before they were able to proceed,” he said.
Both Poffenroth and Garrity said that, as far as they could tell, the absence of any agreement among the parties on how (or whether) to conduct door-to-door campaigning didn’t have any effect on the conduct of the elections themselves.
In Saskatchewan, meanwhile, the provincial election authority told the parties to follow the pandemic guidelines salespeople follow when campaigning door-to-door: maintain physical distancing, don’t work when you’re sick and don’t make physical contact with members of the public. The elections authority said pamphlets could be placed in mailboxes, but campaign workers should only carpool with members of their households.
Some voters ‘uncomfortable’ with canvassing
“Our canvassing guidelines allow for door-to-door and have for several months, in a way that, I would say, minimizes risk close to zero,” said Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer.
“We can’t predict how individuals will feel about people knocking on their door. Some are fine, some feel uncomfortable. But certainly the guidelines would minimize any risk of transmission.”
B.C.’s Chief Electoral Officer Anton Boegman wasn’t warned in advance of the snap election call. He brought the parties together last summer with medical health experts to talk about the campaign.
“I felt it important to bring together the parties as well as the medical health experts to talk about the issues, what the challenges are, how typical campaigning activities should need to be modified to meet the public health requirements,” he told MPs on the House affairs committee, adding his office saw no problems during the election.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, also told MPs on the committee she met with party representatives “a number of times to make sure each party had guidance on how they could conduct campaigns safely during COVID.”
“We talked about things like going door to door and what that would look like, having smaller gatherings, not allowing large groups together, wearing masks and all of those things that are important in campaigning safely during this period of time,” she said.
B.C.’s public health rules for elections state that campaign gatherings should maintain physical distancing, include no more than 50 participants, provide assigned seating and barriers where necessary, collect contact information from participants and, where possible, take place outdoors. The rules strongly encourage holding campaign events online.
Henry was asked by Manitoba NDP MP Daniel Blaikie if federal parties should agree on how to conduct key campaign activities before the next election arrives. “Yes,” she replied.
“I heard a lot of concern in communities about people going door to door,” she added. “That is part of political campaigning, I understand that, but there are alternative ways of doing that and making sure that people know they could signal their concerns if they don’t want somebody to come to their door.”
Omar Alghabra is a veteran Liberal MP from Mississauga, which has seen high numbers of COVID cases. He asked Perrault if Elections Canada had given any thought to regulating how candidates conduct their campaigns.
His answer was blunt: “We do not have any authority to regulate how candidates campaign during the pandemic. I want to be clear about that.”
So it may fall to provincial public health officials like Dr. Henry to tell the parties how to run an election campaign at a time when everyone’s staying in one place.
The “important thing,” she said, “is having clear guidance about what is acceptable and what is not, and then parties holding each other accountable for making sure they’re following that guidance.
“I think most people want to do the right thing. I am very thankful that we don’t have that type of political rhetoric around the important measures that we need to take to prevent the transmission of this virus in Canada.”