N.L. elections authority allowed four people to vote by phone, despite no legislation

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador's elections authority allowed people to vote by phone in the delayed provincial election, despite the chief electoral officer's previous comments that doing so could land him in court.

Elections NL spokeswoman Adrienne Luther said Wednesday that chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk let four people vote by phone because they had received faulty mail-in ballot kits. Legal counsel informed the office Wednesday that this was not allowed, Luther said in an emailed statement.

"Elections NL is contacting the four people who voted by phone to determine what, if any, mechanisms are available to facilitate their right to vote in accordance with the legislation," she said.

The phone-voting process was modelled on a system used in British Columbia, Elections NL said, with one official confirming the person's identity and a second recording their vote to maintain secrecy.

In a Feb. 17 interview with The Canadian Press, Chaulk referred to the B.C. procedure but said it would not fly under his province's elections legislation. "If I was to do a telephone vote, I'd be in court so fast, it would make my head spin," Chaulk said at the time.

Wednesday's news is the latest hiccup in an election that has been anything but smooth.

Liberal Leader Andrew Furey first called the vote on Jan. 15, with polling day set for Feb. 13. But in the week leading up to the vote, a COVID-19 outbreak swept through the St. John's region, prompting poll workers to resign en masse.

Chaulk suspended in-person voting for 18 of the province's 40 ridings on Feb. 11, but by the night of Feb. 12, the province was in lockdown. So he called off voting for the rest of the province and announced votes would instead be cast by mail. After several deadline extensions, ballots now must be received by Thursday, and results are expected Saturday.

Some legal experts say those results will wind up in court. It's not clear if all of Chaulk's decisions fell within the law, and there are concerns the shift to mail-in ballots disenfranchised some voters, such as those in remote Labrador communities who don't have home internet access or rapid mail services.

Earlier, Chaulk had said he hand-delivered voting kits to about six people, including party leaders and candidates who live in his St. John's neighbourhood.

Amanda Bittner, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, said it's been difficult to watch the election "get bungled day after day after day." She said she can't imagine how frustrating these missteps have been for voters who didn't get ballots on time, or for people who work in government and do a good job, or for candidates who are in limbo after quitting their jobs to run.

"We're the butt of a joke. And it's embarrassing," she said. "And it's not our fault."

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie told a virtual news conference Wednesday he felt the chances of the election holding up in court were "slim to none."

"There is much that could be disputed in a court of law, that is for sure," said Crosbie, who is a lawyer. He stopped short of saying his party would challenge the results, saying he'll wait to see what rolls out on Saturday. "What we've got to do is take stock of the ultimate outcome and of everything that's gone wrong in the course of this," he said.

Crosbie was among those who received a hand-delivered ballot from Chaulk. He told reporters Wednesday he didn't ask for the service.

In an emailed statement, Furey said his team understands that Elections NL is addressing the four problematic telephone votes. "I’m glad this situation is being dealt with in a transparent way by Elections NL, as the mechanics of this election are its responsibility alone," Furey said.

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

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press