Obstacles to voting may throw N.L. election outcome into doubt, political scientist says
Move to accommodate persons with disabilities came too late, says prof
A political scientist in St. John's said Friday that Newfoundland and Labrador's election campaign — disrupted last week by a provincewide lockdown — has been riddled with irregularities and is at serious risk of a result that could be challenged in court, if not the court of public opinion.
"When it is complete, we won't know for sure if the House that we've elected is legitimate," Kelly Blidook, who teaches political science at Memorial University, told The St. John's Morning Show.
Blidook said chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk was too late in offering accommodations to people with disabilities that would allow them to vote.
"The message seemed very, very broad, which was basically, 'If you have a problem we will try to accommodate you,'" Blidook said. "The day before the deadline seems like an odd time to really have that sort of wide-open message."
Blidook said voters need more detail about these accommodations, as well as what else Elections NL is doing to adapt to an election that had been originally scheduled for Feb. 13.
The deadline to apply for a special ballot kit is Friday evening at 8 p.m. NT.
Ballots need to be received by Elections NL by March 5 in order to be counted.
In an interview, Blidook was sharply critical of how Chaulk has managed the election delay, including some of the answers he gave in an interview with CBC earlier this week.
"Some of [Chaulk's] answers in that, I actually think will be used in court cases afterwards, to show that the chief electoral officer was not taking people's concerns seriously," he said.
A large part of this confusion, according to Blidook, arose from a breakdown in communication early on between Elections NL and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald. He said Chaulk appeared to brush off legitimate medical concerns.
"If we have people who are isolating for a period of two weeks, how could these people go to the mailbox to get their ballot and come back?" asked Blidook. "Bruce Chaulk's comments on this in his Q&A the other day seemed to kind of diminish these people. These people should not be diminished."
Blidook said constituents have a constitutional right to vote, and the government has a duty to facilitate that right.
"If they have not come up with a way to facilitate that, then they are essentially not meeting that charter right."
When it comes to options for voters, Blidook said it's hard to know what the plan is. There's still uncertainty about how voters with disabilities will receive or cast their ballots.
"I realize that we might be talking about a very small portion of the population in terms of those who can't use the systems in place, but I also feel like to this point, the communication has been vague," he said.
When asked if there's a particular benchmark of voter turnout that would impact the legitimacy of the election, Blidook said there's no clear answer.
"Given that past elections have been in the ballpark of 60 per cent turnout, we should expect about 60 per cent turnout," said Blidook. "[But] certainly if we hit that same number, that doesn't mean the election is suddenly legitimate."
Ultimately, a court would have to look at the election district by district, he said, to determine if and where people may have been disenfranchised.
If there's a legitimate drop in turnout, however, a margin of 10 per cent may be enough of an indication to call this election into question.
"I can't say the exact number, but I think we actually need to start having this discussion," said Blidook, "because what is quite likely to come from this election is that we will have uncertainty when it's done."
Disabled, homeless face challenges
Chaulk said he's endeavouring to not leave anyone out.
"If you identify yourself to us and let us know what disability you have that prevents you from a home vote, then we will figure out a way to let you vote," he said.
But some people with disabilities have still felt excluded from this election, and by the challenges that a shift to mail-in voting poses.
"That takes away my pride, independence, integrity," said Terry Gardner, a Corner Brook resident who lost his sight to glaucoma. He has had to rely on family to cast his vote in this election.
"For somebody who's blind, and lots of people with physical disabilities … it's non-democratic, is what it is."
Nancy Reid, who heads the St. John's-based Coalition for Persons with Disabilities, said her daughter's experience has been revealing. Her daughter is non-verbal and cannot write, but "she can read and mark an X on a piece of paper."
But for a mail-in ballot, more than an X is needed, and her daughter cannot fill it out on her own.
Reid said her daughter's right to vote should also come with privacy.
"She loves to vote. It's something she takes great pride in, and that's been denied," she said.
Late Friday, about three hours after this story was published, Reid got back in touch with CBC News, and said she spoke directly with Chaulk, who said he sent her daughter a traditional ballot so she can mark it with an X independently without having to write down a name.
Chaulk told Reid that if others can't use a blank ballot, they should come forward to Elections NL before 8 p.m. Friday night.
Dan Meades, who has worked for years in St. John's with people who are homeless, said this year's election campaign has been filled with barriers to people who live on the margins.
"It's hard to imagine a process that's less inclusive than this," said Meades, provincial co-ordinator of the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Meades said many of the people he works with lack identification and a home address where a ballot kit can be sent, not to mention a phone or a computer and internet service to request it. Public libraries, which provide a public service, are closed under current lockdown orders.
"There's just too many barriers this time to expect folks that are marginalized to do it," Meades said.
With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates and The St. John's Morning Show