‘Everything is a mess’: N.L. partial election mired in uncertainty

Click to play video: 'Voting delayed for nearly half of N.L. due to COVID-19 outbreaks'
Voting delayed for nearly half of N.L. due to COVID-19 outbreaks
Newfoundland and Labrador's election has been partially postponed, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Ross Lord explains who can vote on February 13, who has to wait, and who says the entire election should be put on hold. – Feb 11, 2021

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – The last day of an election campaign is typically packed with high-energy, high-visibility events to wrangle in a few last votes.

But Rhonda Simms, a first-time candidate in Newfoundland and Labrador‘s provincial election, is spending her last day on the campaign trail at home, staring at a screen. “I never thought in a million years that everything would be so unorganized and confusing and unsafe,” she said in an interview Friday.

Read more: N.L. chief medical officer warns of complacency as province records 100 new COVID-19 cases

On Thursday, voters and candidates learned voting in Saturday’s election would be delayed in 18 of the province’s 40 ridings because of a COVID-19 outbreak hitting the Avalon Peninsula, home to the provincial capital and more than half the population of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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On Friday, a day before the other 22 ridings were set to head to the polls, confusion remained and the party leaders were largely absent from view, apart from an appearance by Liberal Leader and Premier Andrew Furey at a public health briefing on the outbreak

Simms, a Progressive Conservative candidate, said she wishes the election delay had been extended across the province to include her central Newfoundland riding of Lewisporte-Twillingate, where residents were still set to vote Saturday.

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As of Friday night, it was unclear how many polls would be open Saturday. In an email Friday night, Adrienne Luther, a spokeswoman for Elections Newfoundland and Labrador, said many poll workers in the ridings where the election is set to proceed were quitting over fears of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

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Meanwhile, Progressive Conservative candidate Damian Follett, who is running in the St. John’s riding of Mount Scio, confirmed Friday night that he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Simms, for her part, suspended her in-person campaign Friday when she found out someone who had visited her campaign office had recently tested positive for the disease.

Noting that chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald has said the outbreak would likely spread beyond the St. John’s region, Simms said delaying the election in the rest of the province is the only safe and fair thing to do.

“This past week … we have had three major snowstorms,” she said. “Because of that, there are people in this community that I fear have not gone to get tested.” The closest spot they could get swabbed for COVID-19 is more than 45 minutes away, she added.

Click to play video: 'Record new COVID-19 cases trigger calls to delay N.L. election'
Record new COVID-19 cases trigger calls to delay N.L. election

As the number of cases shot up, chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk initially said Thursday that the power to delay an election lay with the chief medical officer. But later that day Fitzgerald said she had sought legal advice and been told it wasn’t her call to make, and it was Chaulk who announced the partial delay.

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On Friday, it still wasn’t clear what the legal ramifications of the delay could be. A news release from the chief electoral officer Friday afternoon said parties could continue campaigning in ridings where the vote was delayed until the day of the rescheduled vote – which hasn’t been set.

Lyle Skinner, an Ottawa-based constitutional lawyer who specializes in parliamentary and emergency management law, said that undetermined date could lead to a legal challenge of results in delayed districts.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s Elections Act doesn’t have explicit provisions allowing Chaulk to do what he did, Skinner said in an interview Friday. There’s a section giving him the power to move the election in the case of an emergency, but other sections limit the numbers of days by which he can move it. In essence, Chaulk is in the unenviable position of having to make the best decision for democracy within the confines of an incompatible law, Skinner said.

“It highlights the need for all provinces to be able to ensure that their electoral laws are flexible enough to account for unexpected circumstances,” Skinner said. New Brunswick has a similar tangle in its legislation, he said, which could have raised similar problems during the provincial election in September. They didn’t come up because New Brunswick didn’t have an outbreak of COVID-19 during its campaign.

Read more: Uncertainty surrounds election delay in Newfoundland and Labrador

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For now, Elections NL has extended the deadline for voters in the affected ridings to request mail-in ballots and is encouraging everyone to vote this way “to ensure the ability to participate in this election.”

During a virtual news conference Thursday evening, Furey said his caretaker government, which by convention exercises limited power, will remain in place until the election can be fully held.

As for Simms, she tried to reach out to her constituents virtually on Friday while hoping they wouldn’t have to vote the next day. “This is not the right time for an election,” she said, adding: “Someone has to step up to the plate and make that decision.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2021.

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