Unprecedented Newfoundland and Labrador election is fraught with risks

In Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s a growing sense that a provincial election disrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak won’t truly be over for a long time.

Kyle Rees, president of the province’s New Democratic Party and a lawyer, says no matter which party ends up with the most votes, the election will probably end up in court.

“I think it seems likely. It’s hard to tell at this early stage. I’ve definitely heard rumblings about various kinds of constitutional challenges that are being contemplated.”

After a sudden outbreak of COVID-19 led poll workers to quit out of fear of contracting the virus at polling stations, Elections NL adopted a makeshift plan that relies exclusively on mail-in ballots and delays results until at least March 12, four weeks after the original election date of Feb. 13.

Read more:
Newfoundland and Labrador cancels in-person voting for election as COVID-19 cases spike

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Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk says mail-ins are safer than in-person voting.

“It is a tried and true method of making sure that people are able to participate in the election.”

But Rees questions whether extending voting day for the entire province is allowed under election law. He says the mail-in system could deny some voters their rights. For instance, parts of Labrador experience slow mail delivery, language barriers and spotty phone and internet services. Reese says those barriers can make it difficult for them to apply for and return their ballots in time to be counted. Ballots must be post-marked for return by March 12.

Read more:
‘Everything is a mess’: N.L. partial election mired in uncertainty

David C. Day, a St. John’s lawyer who is studying the election, says affording an absolute opportunity to exercise the right to vote to all Labradorians poses “an enormous, perhaps impossible, challenge.”

Day says, if a constitutional challenge was mounted under section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms alleging the right to vote was violated, Elections NL would need to “demonstrate his efforts, under the Charter or under the Elections Act, were exceptionally reasonable in the context of the limitations, beyond his control, under which he operated.”

Even without court challenges, there are concerns voters who are nervous about the outbreak and frustrated by the election disruptions have lost their faith.

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Click to play video 'N.L. extends election as surge in cases linked to U.K. variant'

N.L. extends election as surge in cases linked to U.K. variant

N.L. extends election as surge in cases linked to U.K. variant – Feb 13, 2021

“It appears at this point that the die has been cast and they’re going forward,” says Wayne MacKay, a constitutional law expert at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. “But it does leave a question about how much confidence people will have in the election result.”

The elections office says it’s using extra tech resources and has hired a call centre to help smooth out the process.
But, by all accounts, there’s still a long way to go before anyone can call this election a success.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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