Concerns Abound in Newfoundland and Labrador Election Disrupted by COVID Surge

February 17, 2021 Updated: February 17, 2021

The interruption in Newfoundland and Labrador’s election amid a COVID-19 surge has raised concerns about the implications for the democratic process and possible impact on voter turnout.

“If the voter turnout is exceptionally low as a result of the pandemic, then democracy isn’t served,” says Chris Collins, a former New Brunswick politician and a principal with Aurora Strategy Group in Atlantic Canada.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief electoral officer cancelled in-person voting the night before the in-person polls were set to open on Feb. 13 as public health officials introduced provincewide lockdown measures. The province is now relying exclusively on mail-in ballots.

The NDP and Progressive Conservatives have been trying to hold an all-party meeting with chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk to discuss the complexities of a mail-in vote, but they say so far their request has been denied. The governing Liberals have said there’s concern that a closed-door meeting with Chaulk and the parties would jeopardize the perception of the chief electoral officer’s political neutrality.

“There is a crisis right now in our democratic system because there is not roughly equal access to the right to vote,” Tory leader Ches Crosbie told The Canadian Press.

There are also suggestions that the election could face legal challenges as uncertainties abound, such as regarding when votes will be counted. NDP president Kyle Rees told The Canadian Press that a legal challenge seems to be “the direction this is trending.”

The provincial election was called by Liberal Premier Andrew Furey on Jan. 15, a move that was contested by the opposition.

After a surge in COVID-19 cases, Chaulk on Feb. 11 postponed in-person voting to a later date in some areas of the province. By the next day, as health authorities extended lockdown orders, he suspended in-person voting entirely for all 40 electoral districts in the province and shifted the election to mail-in voting.

Then on Feb. 14, he extended the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot from Feb. 15 to Feb. 19, also extending the deadline for ballots to be received by officials from March 1 to March 5.

Chaulk didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

The Liberals won the 2019 election and held 19 of the province’s 40 seats heading into this year’s election, leaving the PCs with 15 seats, the NDP with 3, and independents with 3. Furey took over the Liberal leadership on Aug. 3, 2020, following Premier Dwight Ball’s resignation in February, and was sworn in as premier on Aug. 19, 2020.

Under provincial laws, a premier who rises to power under such circumstances must call an election within a year. The legislature offered to extend this time yo October 2021, following vaccine rollout, but the Liberals refused.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, believes the timing will hurt the Liberals.

“There was no need for an election at this time. The government had not been defeated and the opposition parties opposed having an election. I expect the opposition parties to gain at the Liberals’ expense. This election may turn out to be a gift for the [Progressive] Conservatives,” Wiseman said in an interview.

“It will be interesting to see how many people vote, whether turnout is lower than it was in the last election,” he said.

Collins, a three-term Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick representing Moncton, says the provincial Liberals have done a good job and doesn’t think the election controversies will hurt their chances.

“People in Newfoundland will realize that the timing has been very unfortunate,” he told The Epoch Times.

With files from The Canadian Press