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Elections in the time of COVID-19

by Daniel Centeno

How the 2020 U.S. election compares to Canada’s political arena 

Stickers given to voters after they cast their ballot in the 2020 US election (Element5 Digital/Unsplash)

The political climate of the 2020 U.S. presidential election during a global pandemic has made this election one of the most unprecedented in recent history.  

Americans go to the polls on Nov. 3  to re-elect incumbent president Donald Trump or start anew by voting in former vice-president Joe Biden. Voters had cast nearly 90 million early votes at the time of this writing, according to numbers from Edison Research. 

It seems like the rampant political coverage, discussions and even comedic spoofs dominating American media have created a more divided election.

 “The problem is politics is sweeping into our pop culture a lot more than ever before,” said third-year journalism student Frank Quaranta. “It is creating divides between families, friend groups and communities in general.”

Quaranta is from Maryland and has family working for the federal government in Washington, D.C. It becomes a tale of two Americas during this election cycle, Quaranta said. He is an American first and a Canadian student second as he prepares to watch the U.S. election from Toronto.  

U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence. (History in HD/Unsplash)

He said the divide can be attributed to a variety of political statements and actions. “There’s a very clear ramping up of how angry people are. People close to the middle (of the political spectrum) feel disenfranchised,” said Quaranta

He remembers students divided between party affiliation in high school. He sees his peers in the U.S. declaring themselves as Democrats or Republicans when they used to identify as non-political individuals.  

On the Canadian front 

Quaranta recalls covering the 2019 Canadian federal election for his class assignments, which he viewed as more “civil” and calmer compared to what the U.S. is currently experiencing. 

“If any of the three major parties (Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats) were elected, a significant portion of the population probably wouldn’t have been happy, but it’s not like if civility is at stake,” said Quaranta. “Your 2019 election felt like the election between (Barack) Obama and (John) McCain in 2008.”

Commenting on the surge of U.S. mail-in ballots, he said Americans are “not afforded the luxury of not being political.” Canadians can be “neutral” when it comes to political opinions, according to Quaranta.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party lost their majority government in the 2019 federal election. On Oct.21, the Liberal minority survived a confidence vote in the House of Commons. Thanks to the NDP, Green Party and independent MPs, a motion to create a committee to investigate alleged government corruption regarding the WE Charity scandal was defeated. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a morning briefing to Canadians in March, 2020. (Courtesy of Justin Trudeau’s Twitter account)

Similarly, the government narrowly held on to Toronto Centre and York Centre ridings during the Oct.26 byelections. Between 25 and 30 per cent of eligible voters in these elections cast a ballot. 

This is a stark contrast to the federal elections, when approximately 70 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls in 2019 and 2015 according to Statistics Canada. 

Low voter turnout is not just a phenomenon that is unique to Ontario. In British Columbia, incumbent NDP Premier John Horgan gained his majority government with a record low voter turnout. Preliminary results showing about 52 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot, down nine percentage points from 2017, according to Elections B.C. 

“Voters have gone to the polls in New Brunswick and British Columbia in far fewer numbers,” said Ryerson politics professor Patrice Dutil, referring to recent Canadian elections that happened during the pandemic. “Ten percentage points less in B.C., setting a new record.” 

He believes Canadians do not want to go to the polls but said change in government remains a possibility despite a recent poll showing that Canadians prefer stability during the pandemic.

Dutil speculates that the recent Toronto byelections in Toronto Centre and York Centre are examples of what is to be expected if a federal election is triggered. The numbers are low and the Liberal lead is slipping, according to Dutil. 

COVID-19 and the alleged WE Charity scandal are the most pressing issues that can affect a federal election now, according to Dutil. He said Canadians are also concerned about the Liberal leadership under Trudeau, the future of Canada’s finances and health care.

Dutil said that these issues, along with the new Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole gaining popularity, may lead to a change in government in Canada as well.

Looking ahead 

Quaranta said he expects November to become an “election month” as states with more mail-in ballots will see a delay in postal service. He attributes this to the Americans who are taking COVID-19 seriously and opt to mail their ballots or vote in-person. Further, there will be the potential for recounts and social unrest regardless of who wins the election.

With files from Subi Anandarajah. 

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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