Up in the air

By Chris Lewis | Feb. 18, 2021

It’s hard to know what the biggest topic is Newfoundland this week – the sudden arrival of a Covid-19 variant, or its impact on the provincial election.

Discussed just as much, has been the handling of the election by Chief Electoral Office Bruce Chaulk, who cancelled the Election Day and February 13 and replaced it with a Special Ballot system that many critics fear will fail to give everyone a fair chance to cast a ballot.

Since Chaulk announced the changes, both the phone line and the website for his office were overloaded making it difficult for people to request Special Ballots.

Conception Bay South District incumbent MHA Barry Petten, a PC Party member, allowed he has never seen an election like this one. He said the right to vote is being violated for many people, especially seniors and those who do not have the wherewithal to order Special Ballots online and submit the required documentation electronically.

“It’s a barrier, and voting is not supposed to be like that,” Petten said. “The democratic process is always designed to encourage more participation. We always say voting turnout is too low. (Liberal Leder Andrew Furey) should be advocating to have more voter turnout – that’s what we all strive for in politics.”

The Liberal candidate in Topsail-Paradise District, however, said the playing field is still a level one.

Ken Carter said he still considers it a fair election right.

“They have the opportunity to use mail-in ballots, and I’m working hard to make sure they’re engaged in that process,” Carter said of voters in the district. “My team are making calls, and the people we’re connecting with have been very friendly. They want to follow through the process, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they will participate in this election.”

Carter admitted it may be more difficult for seniors, but said the responsibility for making voting easier falls on two bodies: Elections NL, and the candidates.

“In the district of Topsail-Paradise, I think we had the biggest turnout ever for advanced polls, so people were skeptical, but they certainly participated,” he said.

The NDP’s Tony Chadwick, who is running in the district of Harbour Main, said he worries about voters further north in Labrador.

He noted there are enormous communication problems in parts of Labrador with intermittent internet access at best in some places.

“If they get a windstorm up there, mail is delayed by a week,” Chadwick added. “If they have two windstorms, that takes them way past the deadline set out by the Chief Electoral Officer. So, I think that’s one of the major problems.”

Petten said he has been busy helping people who have turned to him for help navigating the sudden election rule changes. The fact Chaulk has not set another date for people to vote in person is particularly strange, he said.

“To this day, I cannot tell you when this will end,” Petten said, adding he has written a number of emails to Chaulk, but has not heard much back other than bland, uninformative responses. “Is this voter suppression? I don’t know, but it’s an unfair process. Call it what you want,” Petten said.

Chadwick said the problems could have been avoided if more planning and preparation had been put into the election. The new rules regarding the application for Special Ballots are also a problem, he argued.

“The wording is not entirely clear,” Chadwick said. “People are going to find it really hard to navigate that website. Having decided to go online for everybody, well, that sort of thing should have been sorted out way in advance.”

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