Chief N.L. Elections Officer Calls on Authorities to Delay Vote Amid COVID Outbreak

February 11, 2021 Updated: February 11, 2021

ST. JOHN’S, N.L.—Amid climbing COVID-19 case numbers and community spread in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief electoral officer is calling on authorities to postpone the vote in Saturday’s provincial election.

On Thursday morning, Bruce Chaulk sent a letter to party leaders saying people who’d signed up to work at polling stations on Saturday were backing out in droves over fears of contracting and spreading COVID−19.

“We now face a serious occupational health and safety issue,” he wrote, adding: “The current significant outbreak has had a profound impact on our ability to conduct a fair election, and immediate action is required to be taken.”

His letter cites a note from an election worker reporting that 51 people who were supposed to work voting day in one district have quit.

The worker also notes they’re now in isolation in connection with the outbreak and unable to work. An Elections NL spokeswoman said Thursday morning that her office had gone through a list of about 250 backup workers, and all declined the work.

Chaulk’s plea comes after provincial health authorities reported a record-breaking 53 new cases and 32 presumptive of COVID-19 Wednesday and introduced partial lockdown measures in the St. John’s region. After an initial outbreak last spring stemming from a funeral in St. John’s, the province’s daily new case numbers had not exceeded 10 until this week. Officials said there are now 110 active cases in the province—94 of which were announced this week—and they expect that number to climb.

In his letter, Chaulk said his own powers to postpone the vote are limited, but the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, “has significant powers when it comes to public health.”

“In my opinion, to conduct a fair election she must exercise those powers to delay the election,” he wrote. Alternatively, party leaders should discuss the issue with a goal of approaching the lieutenant-governor to find a constitutionally sound way to postpone polling day, he said.

Confusion over exactly who has the authority to postpone the vote has been swirling since Wednesday’s public COVID-19 briefing. When asked about the election, Fitzgerald told reporters it did not fall under her jurisdiction.

In an interview Thursday morning, Chaulk said the power to delay the election is “combined” between Fitzgerald’s authority over public health measures and his authority within the Elections Act. “She orders me to stop, then I stop,” he said.

He said he’d spoken with Department of Health officials and with Fitzgerald on Thursday morning, but that he hadn’t yet heard from party leaders.

Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Andrew Furey issued a statement Thursday saying he looks forward “to Elections NL and public health working together to explore all options for a safe and proper path forward.” Furey has said repeatedly that though he called the election on Jan. 15, he has no authority over how it runs or whether it can be delayed.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie on Wednesday called for a voting delay, telling reporters on a video call that he wanted authorities to take more time to plan a safe election in the face of widening COVID-19 spread. A spokeswoman for NDP Leader Alison Coffin said Thursday morning that party officials were meeting about the situation.

Both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives are expected to make statements later Thursday. As for Chaulk, he said there could be an update on the status of the provincial election by Thursday afternoon.

“We have to navigate our way in … what we’re going to do with this, and what we can do in the confines of the fact that election day is scheduled in two days,” he said.