Furey called shortest possible campaign despite concerns from Elections NL

·4 min read
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey takes questions from reporters at Government House in St. John's on Thursday. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey takes questions from reporters at Government House in St. John's on Thursday. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Newfoundland and Labrador's premier decided to call an election campaign meant to last the shortest allowable time despite concerns voiced by the province's chief electoral officer.

In a letter sent to Andrew Furey nine days before the Liberal leader called the election, Bruce Chaulk warned of the risks of a short campaign, given the time required to mail special ballots in both directions.

"I have concerns that a significant number of ballots may not be returned in time to be counted," Chaulk wrote on Jan. 6, adding that in a recent byelection in Furey's own district of Humber-Gros Morne, "approximately 9% of mailed out special ballot kits were not returned in time to be counted."

Despite those concerns, on Jan. 15, Furey called a 28-day election — the shortest possible campaign under the province's electoral law.

According to the Elections Act — in normal circumstances — the writ period must last between four and five weeks. The exact length of the campaign is at the discretion of the premier. But in the run-up to an election organized in the middle of winter and the middle of a pandemic, Chaulk wrote Furey to say an extended campaign would be prudent to ensure mail-in ballots would be received in time for the vote count.

At the time, Chaulk's agency expected tens of thousands of people to vote by mail.

"Although we attempt to speed up the mailing process by utilizing express post out and back for electors in Canada, it is still a short time frame. However, every day added to the writ period is an additional day to get the kit out and back," Chaulk wrote, adding that it can take 15 days to send out, complete and receive special ballot kits at Elections NL headquarters.

Chaulk did not agree to an interview on the letter, but a spokesperson for Elections NL said the chief electoral officer "indicates that the letter is self-explanatory."

In a statement Thursday, Furey said he has "spoken to the election timing consistently over the last three months."

The premier notes that Chaulk's letter also indicated that holding election day on a Saturday would allow more polling stations in schools — a measure that would increase the number of polls while reducing the number of contacts for election workers and voters.

"I was asked to consider two issues, and I did, with advance polls and election day both set for Saturdays," Furey said in the statement. "As we have all seen, an election requires many sacrifices of those running in it, so there are a number of considerations involved when looking at the duration. Elections NL always had the ability to pivot where necessary, as we ended up with a 10-week election to ensure voters had every opportunity to safely cast their ballots."

The province's chief electoral officer, Bruce Chaulk, warned of the risks of a shortened campaign for mail-in voting.
The province's chief electoral officer, Bruce Chaulk, warned of the risks of a shortened campaign for mail-in voting.(Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

Furey accused of misleading public

Chaulk's letter was obtained by the Progressive Conservative Party through access-to-information legislation but was independently verified by CBC News.

Both opposition party leaders noted Thursday that during the campaign Furey said repeatedly he had consulted Chaulk and public health data before calling the election.

"When Premier Furey was asked about that he has repeatedly said that he has spoken to Bruce Chaulk and that Bruce Chaulk had said it was OK to have an election now," said NDP leader Alison Coffin.

"The premier obviously had this letter — he had acted on the recommendation of a Saturday polling date — but deliberately chose to not let the public know that there was a recommendation for a longer writ period, and he did not share that Bruce Chaulk had recommended that," Coffin said.

Interim PC Leader David Brazil said, "It's a bit alarming that the premier didn't take the advice, particularly, as the chief electoral officer outlined, a longer election would make it safer for people to get mail-in ballots, would make it more efficient for them to be able to get it out, and would ensure that more people would have an opportunity to vote."

"It tells me that the premier had an agenda and the agenda was he was going to go call the election regardless of whatever else was happening in our society based on where the polls were."

While decisions made by Chaulk during the campaign have been criticized, Brazil said, "You know, Mr. Chaulk, in this case, actually was being proactive and was trying to anticipate a process that would maximize those people who were able to avail of a mail-in ballot process."

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