Deadline for voting in disrupted N.L. election passes but some never received ballots

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Thursday was a voting day unlike any other in Canada’s easternmost province, but a Labrador man says he and many others in his community have been unable to cast a ballot.

Rex Holwell said Newfoundland and Labrador’s pandemic-delayed vote will be the first election he’s missed since he came of age in 1968 -- but it’s not for lack of trying. In an interview Thursday, Holwell said both he and his wife requested mail-in ballots, but only his wife’s arrived.

On Monday, he said, he got a call from Elections NL saying the office had mistakenly mailed his ballot to Hopedale, another coastal fly-in community. With ballots due by 4 p.m. Thursday, Holwell said his time has run out and many others in Nain are in the same position.

“I think it’s a farce, myself,” Holwell said. “There's going to be a very low turnout, I'd say."

About 10 weeks after it was first called on Jan. 15, there is finally an end in sight to the provincial election. Voting day was originally scheduled for Feb. 13, but a COVID-19 outbreak in the capital prompted authorities to suspend-in person voting and shift to mail-in ballots the night before the vote.

The transition has not been smooth. Chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk has extended ballot deadlines several times, ultimately settling on Thursday, with results expected to be announced Saturday. Residents had to request a mail-in voting kit from Elections NL by Feb. 19 and some said the online system was down in the hours leading up to that deadline.

Holwell said many people in Nain, particularly older voters, didn’t know they had to request ballots, thinking instead that Elections NL would automatically send them to registered voters. Most found out too late, he said.

Holwell said Elections NL told him he could vote by phone instead, but on Tuesday, when he tried the number they gave him, he couldn’t through.

The next day, news broke that Chaulk had allowed four people to vote by phone but legal counsel had since informed his office that voting by phone was illegal. Chaulk earlier told The Canadian Press that the province's legislation didn't allow telephone voting. "If I was to do a telephone vote, I’d be in court so fast, it would make my head spin," he said at the time.

Holwell said he saw the news and figured that was why the phone number he was given didn’t work. He hasn’t heard from the elections office since, he said. Elections NL has not yet responded to a request for comment.

The Progressive Conservatives and NDP were still launching attacks on the incumbent Liberals Thursday afternoon, marking 70 days of campaigning since the day the vote was called. That puts Newfoundland and Labrador’s election among the longest in Canadian history, shy of the 78-day federal election campaign in 2015.

Turnout in Newfoundland and Labrador is expected to hit a historic low. According to the office’s latest estimates of mail-in ballot requests, voter turnout would be 49.9 per cent if every vote requested was returned by Thursday’s deadline.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press