(CBC - image credit)
Voters in Newfoundland and Labrador have been given more time to apply for a special ballot for the provincial election, as Elections NL has extended the deadline to Feb. 19 at 8 p.m.
In a statement Sunday morning, the province's chief electoral officer, Bruce Chaulk, said the deadline would be extended to "ensure everyone has an opportunity to exercise their right to vote."
Completed voting kits must now be returned to Elections NL on or before March 5.
Chaulk also stressed the validity of using special ballots to conduct the election, which was scheduled for Saturday but had to be postponed due to a growing COVID-19 outbreak in the province.
"The special ballot process has been tried and true in our legislation over the years, and it's had a couple of legal challenges over the years and we've always been successful," Chaulk told CBC News.
"We're quite confident that we could defend these decisions in court."
Prior to the decision on Friday night to suspend in-person voting and move entirely to mail-in ballots, there was some confusion about whether the power to alter the election would rest with Chaulk or Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, but Chaulk said Sunday that the choice was his.
"I was confident I was able to delay the election on my part. I do have a section of the [Elections] Act which allows me to do that. But I have to make my decision based on the the exigencies of the circumstances," he said.
"On Friday, when I found out that we were moving from [Alert] Level 2 to Level 5 ... because of the variant, I knew that it was impossible for us to be able to conduct in-person voting in the province."
Chaulk also said nearly 250 poll station staff felt it was unsafe to work after this week's spike in COVID-19 cases.
Chaulk's statement on Sunday said Elections NL has obtained "additional technological resources" to support the application process for a special ballot, and a call centre has been set up to take phone calls.
He said Elections NL's online portal is the best way to request a ballot, but the call centre would help accommodate voters in areas with poor internet access. Chaulk said phone calls have been coming in from northern Labrador.
Ballots could begin to be counted after the Feb. 19 deadline.
"Once we have all of them sent out, then our legislation does allow us to start counting some of those as they come in," Chaulk said. "We already have 30,000 here, and once we've got the other ones sent out, then we can start to redeploy our resources to start counting those."
But it may not end there. Chaulk said the deadline could change again depending on further interruptions, using a COVID-19 outbreak at Canada Post as a hypothetical.
PCs, NDP renew call for meeting
Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats have renewed calls for an all-party meeting with the chief electoral officer.
Both parties called for a meeting Saturday afternoon and issued new statements on Sunday morning that supported Chaulk's decision to extend the deadline for special ballots, but they doubled down on their push for a meeting.
"I remain convinced that a meeting involving the people responsible for administering the election and the people who are actually on the ground dealing with the electors would likely be advantageous to all concerned and would very likely help develop solutions," said Kyle Rees, the NDP's president.
PC Leader Ches Crosbie echoed that call and said Chaulk should speak with the political parties and inform the public before going to the media.
"It's time for Mr. Chaulk to address the concerns directly to the people of the province and to convene a meeting to answer questions from the parties," Crosbie said in a statement.
"This election is too important for Mr. Chaulk's continued avoidance of these critical issues. We need a meeting as soon as possible."
Rees accused Chaulk of flip-flopping on a plan for a meeting on Saturday after the Liberals released their own statement, claiming a meeting could compromise the perception of Chaulk's independence.
"Yesterday, when I asked for a meeting, you agreed within mere minutes, asking the political parties to set up a meeting time. Then, only a few hours later, you indicated you would suddenly be unavailable for a meeting," he wrote in the statement.
"I am somewhat concerned about the optics of your changed decision, as between those two responses the president of the Liberal Party indicated his party would not be participating."
But Chaulk told CBC News he felt the easiest solution would be to collect concerns from each individual party and then "issue guidance."
"Instead of it being just an open forum, it was better to have some of those things coming in in writing to me so that I could adequately address them and then provide a response to all the parties at the same time," he said.
"Not all the parties have the same concerns, and this is the best way to be able to address them and submit them in writing."