Concerns raised over short time frame for rotational workers to vote in N.L. election

·4 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Many of Newfoundland and Labrador's thousands of rotational workers are raising concerns about their ability to participate in the looming provincial election, with some saying Sunday they fear the timing of the vote may prevent them from exercising their democratic rights.

An estimated 20,000 residents spend long stints away from home on jobs that take them out of the province for weeks at a time.

On one Facebook group for rotational workers, established in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when health authorities were rolling out special quarantine rules for people regularly shuttling between provinces, concerns about the pending Feb. 13 election have emerged as a hot topic. Many in the group are sharing information on how to vote by mail, urging their fellow rotational workers to be sure they get a ballot.

"I'm hearing a lot of frustration," said Jeremy Howell, one of the groups' administrators. "We have our group that's almost at 5,000 rotational workers. There are posts there daily," he said in an interview Sunday.

"Some people are leaving and they work four to six weeks, some international, some on the boats. Six weeks is a pretty standard schedule. A lot of people won't be home and even with the mail-in ballot they won't be home to pick up their mail-in ballot," he said.

Howell said he appreciates the fact that Elections Newfoundland and Labrador has a system to allow rotational workers to register for a mail-in ballot online, but he said workers should also be able to complete the process of voting by phone if they're out-of-province for an extended stretch.

"I think they should have had this worked out well in advance," he said of provincial officials. "It's our right to vote. Everyone should be given an avenue."

Voting barriers faced by rotational varriers emerged as a campaign issue for one local candidate earlier in the weekend.

Chris Tibbs, a Progressive Conservative candidate in central Newfoundland, issued a release on Saturday saying a snap election called in the middle of winter makes it tough for rotational workers to vote.

"I encourage everyone to use their voice in the democratic process ... and I encourage everyone to vote early, if they can, to ensure their vote is counted," Tibbs wrote.

Bruce Chaulk, the province's chief electoral officer, said there is no provision for phone voting right now and such a system would raise concerns about privacy.

"That would require a change in legislation," he said in an interview Sunday.

He said dealing with rotational workers and snowbirds who wish to vote is nothing new, adding both demographics are considered when rolling out mail-in ballots.

"When you fill out the form there's two spots on it. One is your home address so we can figure out what district you're in, and where you want it mailed," Chaulk said. "If they are out west and are going to be there, then there's no reason why we wouldn't send it to them out there. That's what we've always done."

There are more than 368,000 registered voters for this election, and Chaulk said his office has processed more than 3,000 requests for mail-in ballots so far. Those ballots are set to be mailed out this week.

Howell, who travels from his home in North Bay, N.L., to work in Anzac, Alta., said he'll be out of self-isolation next week and will cast his ballot early.

The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 2. For a special ballot, applications must be received by Elections NL by 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6. The deadline to drop off a completed special ballot kit at a district office is 4 p.m. the next day, and 4 p.m. on Feb. 9 for ballots mailed to the Elections NL office in St. John’s.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2021.

- By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton, with files from Sarah Smellie in St. John's.

The Canadian Press