Tories, NDP baffled that chief electoral officer is refusing meeting to hear election worries
Chaulk not making time for parties, Crosbie says
Bruce Chaulk, Newfoundland and Labrador's chief electoral officer, is refusing to meet with parties and candidates, citing a need to maintain its institutional independence.
Chaulk sent a letter to the Liberals, PCs, NDP and three Independents around noon on Tuesday, explaining why he would not convene a meeting with a party advisory committee to hear complaints.
"In the circumstances, it would be highly inappropriate for a meeting to take place," Chaulk wrote.
Chaulk is under pressure from opposition parties to meet with them, although the Liberals say Chaulk should only take their complaints in writing. Elections NL confirmed to CBC on Tuesday evening that Chaulk agreed with that course of action, declining to discuss electoral issues with candidates in person.
Under provincial legislation, the NDP and the NL Alliance do not have the statuatory right to sit on the committee, as neither party had candidates in at least 50 per cent of districts at the last general election, according to Chaulk's letter.
He would therefore only be legally required to meet with the Liberals and PCs.
"The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer is an independent statutory office of the House of Assembly and will not become involved in political partisanship between the parties," he wrote. "It is imperative that institutional independence of the Chief Electoral Office be maintained during the electoral process."
Chaulk said his absence did not prevent candidates from meeting and identifying common issues, which could then be presented to Chaulk's office.
Candidates in the election — which was scheduled for Feb. 13 before the province was pushed into lockdown with the outbreak of the fast-spreading coronavirus variant B117 — are worried voters won't be able to get mail-in kits and return them by the new deadline of March 5.
Chaulk pushed the election to mail-in only late Friday night, shortly after Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald announced she was returning the province to Alert Level 5, the most rigid level in the province's public health protocols.
Chaulk refused an interview request on Tuesday, saying he was not available, according to an Elections NL spokesperson, who later confirmed Chaulk had issued the statement to the parties.
"I don't know if the packages are going to make it here in time for people to fill out their ballots," NDP Torngat Mountains candidate Patricia Johnson-Castle told CBC's Labrador Morning on Monday.
"I also don't know if any of the ballots that are filled out are going to make it to St. John's [in time.]"
So far, according to Elections NL, they have received 50,000 special ballot applications, and the next batch is expected to be mailed out on Tuesday. That number is in addition to the 33,000 applications received in the leadup to what would have been election day, for a combined total of 83,000.
Johnson-Castle also voiced concerns over the limited access to internet and phone services in rural Labrador, which are needed to be able to apply for a mail-in ballot, and the possibility that ballots will not be translated for people who don't speak English.
"It often takes three to six months for internet to be installed. There are people waiting for that, so access to the internet in and of itself is a huge issue," she said.
"This is not really a place where you can plan large-scale things last minute," she added. "To plan such a systematic thing and to expect such a short window from a region that has such complicated needs… Calling this election in the winter in and of itself was a complete disregard of Labrador."
Election has 'dissolved into chaos'
Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie said the PCs and two other parties have been trying to bring their election concerns to the chief electoral officer since Friday.
Crosbie alleges interference from Liberal Leader Andrew Furey, who says the all-party committee should not have to meet regarding the electoral process.
"Premier Furey and his party representatives have been interfering in the right of that committee to meet and advise Mr. Chaulk, by refusing to attend it and saying there should be no meeting," he said Monday.
"All of that is against the law, frankly, which is clearly set out in the Elections Act."
The Liberals, however, have maintained that it's not appropriate for party representatives to meet directly with Chaulk, and that any party's concerns should be put on the record, in writing.
"The proper, typical, and publicly transparent method to address concerns is to write Elections NL so that the record is clear, preventing political parties from trying to distort what was said," John Samms, the Liberal campaign co-chair, said in a statement Monday night.
"Given the ongoing issues requiring the chief electoral officer's attention, the Liberal Party of N.L. is committed to continue to keep politics out of the independent election process."
Crosbie wanted to discuss with Chaulk avenues to iron out problems that have arisen from the move to extend the campaign. He said the process has "dissolved into chaos."
"We're being told that it all has to be done by special ballot, and that the cutoff date now after several changes is on Friday … but Mr. Chaulk in recent comments is saying maybe that's not the cutoff date," he said.
"If Mr. Chaulk ever needed advice, he's never needed it more than he needs advice now."
Kyle Rees, president of Newfoundland and Labrador's New Democratic Party, said Chaulk was willing to meet with party officials until the Liberals issued a news release saying the meeting did not need to happen.
Rees said the NDP, PCs and the Newfoundland and Labrador Alliance began setting up a meeting and figuring out times.
"We were ready to go, and then we didn't hear anything from the chief electoral officer for a couple of hours," he said.
"Within a few minutes of that release coming out, we received an email … that said he didn't have any time to do meetings. So that's pretty concerning."
WATCH | Bruce Chaulk speaks Sunday with the CBC's Rosie Barton about N.L.'s unprecedented move to mail-only voting:
When asked if any concerns from the parties could result in a legal challenge of the election results, both Crosbie and Rees said it is not on their respective parties' agendas. However, both said such a prospect is not out of the question.
"It's not something we would want to do, but it may be private citizens who go to law over this," said Crosbie, a non-practising lawyer who was well known as a litigator before moving into politics.
"The disputes over spoiled ballots will be endless. The whole thing's in shambles. Mr. Chaulk has to meet and get advice."
Wayne McKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University, said a case could be made under Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — the democratic right to vote — if the measures in place and factors in play do not allow someone to vote.
"It's very clear that you're guaranteed the right to vote in a provincial or federal election," he said.
"It has to be a meaningful and effective way to vote, and therefore the burden is on the government to demonstrate that. On the face of it, because it is so different, it seems to me they may argue that this is a violation of my right to vote."
Rees said he hopes a legal challenge won't be necessary, and that identified problems can be addressed.
"I feel like wading through 200,000 e-mails is going to be a lot more difficult than simply holding a meeting with the parties," he said. "We have to work together."
With files from Mark Quinn, Chris O'Neill-Yates and Labrador Morning