(Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Leaders of two of the biggest political parties in Newfoundland and Labrador are calling for a meeting with the province's Chief Electoral Officer after an unprecedented move to cancel in-person voting across the province.
Both NDP and PC officials called for an all-party meeting on Saturday afternoon, in the middle of what would have been election day.
Bruce Chauk, the province's chief electoral officer, cancelled in-person voting across the province late Friday night, less than 11 hours before residents were set to head to the polls.
The move away from in-person voting is a first in Canadian history. Voting will now take place entirely by mail.
Representatives from the two opposition parties said they supported the move Friday night, but now the parties are asking whether the change will exclude voters.
"Proceeding on the most recent set of rules as issued by Elections NL will disenfranchise thousands of voters," said PC Leader Ches Crosbie in a statement.
In a separate statement, an official with Newfoundland and Labrador's New Democratic Party said there was "confusion" surrounding voting.
"It is hard to believe everything will be straightened out by 8 p.m. Monday," said Kyle Rees, who serves as president of the party.
Meanwhile, a representative from the Liberal Party told Chaulk that he should stay away — warning it would be "potentially compromising the public perception of your institutional independence."
"In our view, all candidates/campaigns may communicate the issues they are facing to you and then you should address them in your own discretion," John Samms, the party's co-chair, wrote Saturday evening.
"If political parties/individual candidates wish to discuss amongst themselves common issues and jointly make you aware of those issues in writing, such that any deliberations may be fully transparent and available to the public upon request, then that may be the more sensible approach."
Election offices in Newfoundland and Labrador have been flooded with applications for special ballots, leading to hiccups as voters try to secure their voting kits during the extended provincial election.
More than 20,000 people have applied for mail-in ballots since Thursday, when the applications unexpectedly reopened across the province.
But on Saturday morning, voters calling for assistance could not connect: the voicemail boxes were full, and phone calls could not be answered due to a "deep clean" in the offices.
The issue was resolved by about 2 p.m. NT, but not before some voters spent hours Saturday trying to get through to the office. Voters have been told they have until Monday evening at 8 p.m. NT to apply for a mail-in ballot.
"This situation remains fluid. We will be re-evaluating the deadlines announced to ensure that we are able to assist as many people as possible," Bruce Chaulk, the province's chief electoral officer, said in a statement. He said in a follow-up interview that the cleaning took place after one of his senior staff members was put into isolation after a possible exposure to the coronavirus.
The rush of applications comes after unprecedented changes to Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial election.
CBC reporter Chris O'Neill-Yates breaks down the changes in the video below:
It's now effectively extended, as voters have an additional 16 days to complete and return their ballots, and it's not clear when the results will be known.
Chaulk is defending his plan as the best way to complete voting.
"There's only so long we can let this process go on, and it made sense at this point," he said.
Chaulk's announcement came on the heels of the discovery in St. John's on Friday evening of what is known as the B117 variant of the coronavirus, first detected in the U.K.
"You don't know how long this is actually going to be actually in the community.... It's easier to try to transition people off to the mail-in process and get it finished."
'The mail-in process is tried and true.' - Bruce Chaulk, N.L. chief electoral officer
The province's growing COVID-19 outbreak had already thrown the election into disarray.
In-person voting had previously been delayed for 18 districts on the Avalon Peninsula, and several mayors across rural Newfoundland and Labrador were stepping in to shut down town halls and community facilities that were going to be used as polling stations.
As well, numerous election staff were quitting over fears of COVID-19 infection.
NDP Leader Alison Coffin suggested Friday night that the most recent changes could lead to legal challenges.
Chaulk replied to that suggestion Saturday afternoon, saying that while there have been plenty of court challenges to many elections, the special ballot process "has always been acceptable to the courts."
For the Liberals, Samms wrote that the party agreed that Elections NL was facing "issues," but said "all of us are pulling upon the same oar in ensuring a fair and safe election."
Meanwhile, Chaulk said that as of Friday night, about 65,000 people had already voted in either advance polls or through mail-in ballots.
Chaulk said that Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald's orders for a strict lockdown made him pull the plug on in-person voting altogether — and he says he is allowed to do it.
"The mail-in process is tried and true," he said. "If you think of it, everybody could have voted by special ballot, and nobody would be left to vote at the polls. It's just one of the different methods of allowing a person to vote."
But the logistical challenges of getting kits to voters will be formidable, and voters will not be sent kits automatically. Instead, they had been instructed to go online to ask for them.
That's caused problems in the northern Labrador community of Rigolet, which went without internet and phone access for most of the last week.
Poor internet service is just one complicating factor for Innu in Natuashish, according to George Rich, a former chief of the Mushau Innu First Nation.
He said official election material has not been translated into Innu-aimun, and plenty of elders don't speak English. He also has serious concerns that weather delays will make it impossible to return a ballot to Elections NL by March 1.
"It's very difficult, it's very difficult to be able to do this. Even though they extended until Monday, it's not going to give people enough time to get everything in order to get their mail-in ballots," Rich said.
"I was talking to my cousin ... he said no, I'm not going to be able to vote this time, because I don't know how."
Both communities are in the Torngat Mountains district, the most northerly and isolated district in the province, and not one community has road access.
Rich said the district has always had low voter turnout, and he wants to see solutions to make it easier.
On Saturday, Chaulk said his office has been "hearing the concerns" about internet and computer access. He told people who can't get online to call Elections NL.
"If we can verify that you are on the voters list, we will issue you a voting kit."
He also pledged he would be able to adjust deadlines if there are issues with mail delivery.
In his statement on Saturday, Crosbie said that Indigenous and rural communities were most likely to be hurt by the new election rules.
"This situation must be fixed, and it must be fixed today," said Crosbie. He said his party has learned of a list of concerns, including special ballots going to the wrong households and special ballots going to dead voters.
"We need an extension on special ballot applications, and we need a plan for some form of socially-distant, safe in-person voting," he said.