The Saskatchewan Election:
A 2020 Perspective
COVID-19 and the Saskatchewan Election
By Dr. LOLEEN BERDAHL (PhD), Executive Director, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, and Professor of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. Her research area is Canadian politics, with an emphasis on western Canada, federalism, and public attitudes.
@loleen_berdahl | Loleen Berdahl | email@example.com
KIRSTEN SAMSON, MA student, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2020 with high honours in political studies. Her research area is provincial and federal politics in Canada.
@samson_kirsten | Kirsten Samson | firstname.lastname@example.org
Natural disasters, including public health crises, can be relevant to elections. In parliamentary systems with flexible election timing, they can influence whether an election is called. Natural disasters can impact election administration, as processes must adapt to address any practical impediments. And such crises can influence electoral outcomes as voters evaluate the incumbent government’s response and, if the crisis remains unresolved, the best option for stability moving forward. In the Saskatchewan 2020 election, COVID-19 influenced all of these dimensions but ultimately played a lesser role than one might expect.
COVID-19 and the Saskatchewan Election Call
The Saskatchewan 2020 election was Canada’s third provincial election after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the government-triggered elections in New Brunswick (September 14, 2020) and British Columbia (October 24, 2020), Saskatchewan’s October 26, 2020 election date was established in the Legislative Assembly Act. While the election date issue seems relatively straightforward, it appears that COVID-19 influenced election timing by motivating the Saskatchewan Party government to respect its legislated election date.
On March 7, 2020, Premier Scott Moe reminded the media that he had a right to call a snap election. While Moe initially identified coronavirus as a reason to justify an early election call, he later retracted that comment. Opposition NDP leader Ryan Meili was critical of Moe’s refusal to rule out a snap election in the face of growing COVID-19 concerns. Premier Moe continued election speculation until March 12 when he tweeted this statement: “We will remain focused on providing a strong, stable government and addressing the health and economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I will not be calling a provincial election this spring.”[i]
COVID-19 and Saskatchewan Election Administration
Given the public health concerns associated with coronavirus transmission in public spaces, COVID-19 necessitated changes for election practices and administration. On May 13, the government approved changes to The Elections Act, authorizing the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt any provision of The Elections Act in the pursuit of reducing public health risks.[ii]
Guidelines for door-to-door canvassing were fairly minimal: canvassers were expected to maintain physical distance; frequently practice hand hygiene; refrain from sharing common materials, such as pens; and leave pamphlets, traditionally handed directly to residents, in mailboxes. To protect voters and workers on Election Day, Elections Saskatchewan sourced approximately $425,000 worth of personal protective equipment (PPE), including 400,000 masks, 8,500 litres of disinfectant, and 8,750 litres of hand sanitizer.[iii] Since many of the 2,000 polling locations across the province were located in schools, Elections Saskatchewan, in conjunction with the Government of Saskatchewan, mandated school closures on Election Day.
Further, Elections Saskatchewan introduced a Vote by Mail initiative for any individual who wished to avoid polling stations. While Chief Electoral Officer Michael Boda noted that there was “not enough time in order to build an all-postal election,”[iv] 64,412 Saskatchewan residents applied to vote via mail. The popularity of Vote by Mail meant that approximately eight constituencies were waiting for results several days after Election Day.[v] Residents diagnosed with COVID-19 and those ordered to self-isolate who had not applied to Vote by Mail by the October 15 deadline were unable to vote.
With additional safety precautions, Elections Saskatchewan needed 4,000 more workers than required in previous years. Election Saskatchewan’s calls for volunteers and workers appealed to democratic principles, asking for new election workers to replace regulars who were immunocompromised and unable to work this election.[vi]
Elections Saskatchewan handled the 2020 election with considerable success. With the exception of failing to provide voting alternatives for those ordered to self-isolate after October 15, Elections Saskatchewan met the task of holding an election during a pandemic with careful planning and thoughtful execution.
COVID-19 and the Election Dynamics
Political science research suggests that voters aren’t shy about assigning blame (fairly or not) to governments when times are bad. Voter perceptions of government preparedness and response can make the difference between the disaster being politically relevant or politically inconsequential.
Prior to the election, survey data from the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research (CHASR) suggested COVID-19 would be an important issue for voters,[vii] as more than six in ten respondents stated that COVID-19 and related issues would be important in determining their vote. The three top issues among respondents—health care, the economy, and education—were all clearly impacted by COVID-19. At the same time, the majority of respondents felt the economy was stable or improving and were not particularly concerned with the government’s back-to-school plans.
The pandemic received curiously little public or media attention during the election itself. On October 3, Moe and three other Saskatchewan Party candidates were potentially exposed to coronavirus at a campaign event, leading them to self-monitor for 14 days; this occurrence did not generate considerable notice. The pandemic was acknowledged in party platforms, with the Saskatchewan Party mentioning it primarily with respect to its economic recovery plan and the NDP mentioning it to frame what it saw as the incumbent party’s failures. At the leaders’ debate, COVID-19 was an underlying theme. Throughout the campaign, visual cues to remind voters of the ongoing pandemic were inconsistent, as neither party relied on complete inclusion or exclusion of masks and PPE in its advertisements and photos. Discussion about whether or not party leaders should wear masks increased near the end of the election when Premier Scott Moe tweeted an image of himself shopping without a mask (At this time, there were over 500 active cases of COVID-19 in the province: the highest number of active cases since the pandemic began). The general limited attention to COVID-19 reflected public comfort with the pandemic response; indeed, survey data from Leger released just days before the election[viii] found that 79 per cent of Saskatchewan respondents were satisfied with the government’s COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Overall, COVID-19 served more as the context than as a focal point for the election campaign, and the Saskatchewan Party did not suffer electorally due to the crisis.
Does an ongoing natural disaster like a pandemic create an advantage for incumbent governments? Both the New Brunswick and British Columbia elections returned their minority governments with strong majority statuses, and the Saskatchewan election returned the majority government with a strong majority. However, the Saskatchewan Party was victory-bound long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pandemic played little role in the dominant narratives of the election. While COVID-19 clearly impacted election administration, and appears to have impacted the election timing, its impact upon the election dynamics was minimal.
[i] Scott Moe, “We Will Remain Focused on Providing a Strong, Stable Government,” Twitter, March 12, 2020, https://twitter.com/PremierScottMoe/status/1238111374707843074.
[ii] Saskatchewan, “Government Gives Chief Electoral Officer Clear Authority to Ensure a Safe Election,” Government of Saskatchewan, May 13, 2020, https://www.saskatchewan.ca/government/news-and-media/2020/may/13/safe-election.
[iii] Stephanie Taylor, “Masks and Gloves: Elections Saskatchewan Preparing for Pandemic Election,” The Globe and Mail, July 11, 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/amp/canada/article-masks-and-gloves-elections-saskatchewan-preparing-for-pandemic-2/.
[iv] Rob Paul, “Sask Chief Electoral Officer Preparing for Impact of COVID-19,” Yorkton This Week, August 6, 2020, https://www.yorktonthisweek.com/regional-news/sask-chief-electoral-officer-preparing-for-impact-of-covid-19-1.24181741.
[v] Morgan Modjeski, “8 Sask. Ridings too Close to Call, Including NDP Leader Ryan Meili’s, with Mail-in Ballot Still to be Counted,” CBC News, October 27, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/delayed-races-in-2020-election-1.5777992.
[vi] Michael Boda, “On October 26, Give a Day to Saskatchewan’s Democracy –– Your Democracy,” Elections Saskatchewan, September 18, 2020, https://www.elections.sk.ca/media/news-releases/on-october-26-give-a-day-to-saskatchewans-democracy-your-democracy/.
[vii] Loleen Berdahl, “Survey Suggests COVID-19 Will be on Voters’ Minds in Upcoming Sask. Election,” CBC News, September 16, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/analysis-sask-election-survey-covid-19-1.5724801.
[viii] Leger, The Canadian Press, and Association for Canadian Studies, “Weekly Survey,” October 26, 2020, Leger360, https://leger360.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Legers-Weekly-Survey-October-26th-2020-min.pdf.