'This is messed up:' Critics say N.L.'s mail-in election disenfranchises many voters

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador's latest election changes are again under fire, with critics saying the all mail-in format risks leaving voters behind, from residents of remote Labrador communities without internet to anyone without a fixed address.

Even voters with an internet connection were struggling on Monday: the elections authority's online application form was down on Monday afternoon, and its phone line was disconnecting calls.

"It's really tough to watch this," Amanda Bittner, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John's, said in an interview Monday. "Planning for a pandemic election is not just ordering more (personal protective equipment) and hand sanitizer."

She said it requires creativity, anticipating problems and making sure whoever is in charge of ensuring fair and free elections puts those most likely to be disenfranchised at the centre of the plan.

The provincial election was upended last week as a COVID-19 outbreak flared in the St. John's area. First voting was suspended across the Avalon Peninsula, which includes St. John's. Then, less than 12 hours before polls were set to open Saturday in the rest of the province, the elections authority called off all in-person voting. Instead, all votes will be cast by mail, with voters instructed to apply for ballots by phone or online, to be returned by March 5.

Patricia Johnson-Castle, the NDP candidate in the northern Labrador riding of Torngat Mountains, said voters in remote, fly-in communities on Labrador's north coast face significant challenges getting ballots to St. John's by the March 5 deadline. Many don't have home phones or internet service to request a ballot, and with the province under partial lockdown, they can't go to the home of someone who does, she said. She said mail regularly takes two or three weeks to arrive from St. John's.

Her riding is also overwhelmingly Indigenous, and some residents don't speak English. "When you're voting in person, the poll clerk, generally, is bilingual and is able to help unilingual people vote," she said. It's not clear whether mail-in ballots will be available in other languages, she said. "This is voter suppression," Johnson-Castle said.

Neither Elections Newfoundland and Labrador nor chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk responded to requests for interviews Monday.

Laura Winters, executive director of the St. John's Status of Women Council, said community organizations often help voters who don't have identification or a fixed address. But with provincewide pandemic restrictions, and with so little time before ballots are due, she said it's not clear how that can happen.

"I think we've seen an assumption of privilege in every attempt to mediate the circumstances surrounding this election," Winters said in an email on Monday.

With the dust still not settled, Bittner said the main takeaway is that holding an election during a pandemic is risky, and provinces need better legislation to accommodate that risk and support reasonable solutions. New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan all held elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they got away with the risk, she said.

Newfoundland and Labrador wasn't so lucky. She said it's not yet clear what the legal ramifications will be or what failures led to the current situation, but it will be important to identify and fix them. "The one thing we can agree to is that this is messed up," she said.

The Progressive Conservative party issued a news release Monday urging the Liberals to join them and the NDP in an all-party meeting with Chaulk to address concerns about the election. The Liberals had said on Sunday they believe it's best for the parties to express their concerns to Chaulk individually.

In an emailed statement Monday, a spokeswoman for Liberal Leader Andrew Furey said the Liberals have written Elections NL with concerns. "Elections NL is the independent agency responsible for running the provincial election," Meghan McCabe said, "and our party believes it is important to refrain from political interference in its process."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press