Madam Speaker, I am very happy to speak to Bill C-19, which is an important initiative that would authorize Elections Canada to organize a safe election should one be called during this pandemic.
As we all know, COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. Canadians from coast to coast to coast have made and continue to make big sacrifices to protect one another. We have had to rethink things we once took for granted, things as simple as getting together with family for dinner.
Around the world, events have had to be cancelled or postponed. Nobody is happy about that, but these measures are essential to limiting the spread of the virus and, of course, saving lives. However, we also have to see to the health of our democratic institutions. We have to make sure that, if a general election were to take place during the pandemic, the whole process would be safe for voters, volunteers and, of course, election officials.
A number of countries held general elections as planned, despite the pandemic, while others chose to postpone them instead. Several of the countries that proceeded with their elections implemented strict public health measures, such as mandatory masks, physical distancing, and the distribution of hand sanitizer and disposable gloves to voters.
Consider the example of South Korea, which was one of the first countries that held elections during the pandemic. This example proves that elections can be held safely during the pandemic, since there were no new infections linked to the election. Still, we must not bury our heads in the sand. Holding an election during a pandemic like the one we are currently experiencing will not be without challenges.
We are fortunate to have a world-class election administration agency here in Canada. For 100 years, Elections Canada has done an outstanding job of providing Canadians with the best possible service so they can choose who will have the honour of representing them in the House. I am confident that, if necessary, Elections Canada would conduct a safe election despite the pandemic. That being said, we have an opportunity to give it additional tools to better ensure the safety and health of voters and election workers.
Bill C-19, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act with regard to COVID-19 response, would accomplish exactly that temporarily and would be applicable only during this pandemic. It would allow Canadians to exercise their right to vote safely while maintaining the integrity of our electoral system.
Firstly, we have to think about the most vulnerable among us, those who live in residences and in many of the long-term care facilities across the country who have been especially hard hit by COVID-19. The bill provides for a 13-day period before voting begins during which time returning officers can work with the facility directors to ensure that the people who live there can vote safely.
Secondly, the bill would grant an additional adaptation power to the Chief Electoral Officer to allow him to respond effectively to unforeseen circumstances caused by the pandemic. Currently, section 17 of the Canada Elections Act allows the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt provisions of this legislation to allow voters to vote or to allow the votes to be counted.
The proposed temporary measure would broaden the scope of section 17, allowing the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt the provisions of the legislation in order to ensure the health and safety of the voters and the election workers.
Third, to promote physical distancing and avoid overly long lines at the polls, Bill C-19 would create a three-day polling period consisting of a Saturday, Sunday and Monday. These two weekend days would add a total of 16 hours of voting to the 12 hours on Monday, which would allow voters to choose the most convenient time for them to vote. In addition to ensuring the safety of our voters, this measure would maximize opportunities for people to vote.
Last of all, given the success of mail-in voting here and elsewhere, the bill will empower the Chief Electoral Officer to improve access to this manner of voting in several ways.
Elections Canada estimates that up to five million voters could choose mail-in voting if elections were to take place during the pandemic. To meet this demand, the bill provides for the installation of secure reception boxes at the office of the Chief Electoral Officer and authorizes every polling station to receive online applications for mail-in ballots. The identification numbers will be accepted as proof of identity for these applications.
Furthermore, it would allow voters who have requested a mail-in ballot to change their minds and subsequently vote in person. Certain conditions are attached to this measure to protect the integrity of the electoral system.
In conclusion, this bill will give Elections Canada the useful tools required to safely administer an election during the pandemic. I invite my hon. colleagues to join me in supporting this bill.