Campaigning can continue past Feb. 13, says chief electoral officer, as town closes polling station
Political scientist isn't sure Bruce Chaulk's decision to delay election in 18 districts is legal
In an 11th-hour decision, Newfoundland and Labrador's chief electoral officer says political parties and candidates can continue to campaign after Saturday, which is election day for many people in the province.
Bruce Chaulk, in a media release issued shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, said there is a "advertising blackout period" in effect for Feb. 12 and 13. There will be another blackout period before the new polling date for the 18 districts on the Avalon peninsula where voting has been postponed.
"Campaigns may continue to advertise and fundraise after [Feb.12]. The campaign expenditure limits remain the same," says a statement from Chaulk.
Earlier Friday, Chaulk — the man in charge of running Newfoundland and Labrador's election — stood by his decision to delay in-person voting for almost half the province's districts, disputing criticism and analysis, even as one town takes matters into its own hands and refuses to hold a poll.
Chaulk delayed in-person voting for 18 districts on the Avalon Peninsula due to the COVID-19 outbreak rapidly intensifying in the region and causing mass resignations among Elections NL staff. He gave no timeline for when those polls would occur, but he also extended special balloting to anyone who wants to vote by mail instead, regardless of where they live.
That drew criticism from Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie, who said Chaulk's move creates "two classes of voters" with unequal access to information on which to base their vote.
"That argument's not valid," said Chaulk, noting that 65,000 people had already cast their vote by special ballot or in advance polls.
Crosbie called for a delay for all 40 districts, but Chaulk said it remains safe to vote in the 22 districts set to proceed on Saturday under the original health guidelines set out, which include distancing, enhanced cleaning and other measures to make the process quick and sanitary.
"As long as you have the right number of people in the polling station, and … in a lot of the rural areas, the very small polling stations, there's only one or two people in them anyway," he said.
"And all of the additional measures that we put in will make it a very safe process to to vote tomorrow in those areas."
Central Newfoundland upheaval
One town, however, isn't interested in going ahead with Saturday's in-person vote.
The Town of Burlington, on the Baie Verte Peninsula, decided Friday to shut its town hall — where its only poll was meant to be held — citing the increase of COVID-19 in the province as worrying the area's large senior population.
"They're uneasy about getting out and going to vote and a bit concerned, so we just shut the building down," said Mayor George Kelly.
Elections NL confirmed that it had received notice of the closure and is working to find a solution in the district of Baie Verte-Green Bay.
There has been confusion as to whether parties could continue to campaign past Saturday, and Chaulk said he would clear that up by Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, the PC candidate for Lewisporte-Twillingate, Rhonda Simms, called off her campaign early Friday morning, citing safety concerns.
"I'm feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, scared. I am just really concerned about the people in our district," Simms told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.
She said someone had visited her campaign office who had since received a presumptive positive test result, but that public health had not been in contact with her to confirm those results.
There are three active COVID-19 cases in the Central Health region, all of which were announced Friday, as an outbreak that centred on the St. John's region continues to grow. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the source of the central Newfoundland cases is still under investigation.
As long as people maintain public health measures outside the St. John's area, "we can safely conduct an election elsewhere in the province," she told reporters Friday.
Is this even legal?
In the wake of Thursday's election upheaval, one political scientist is questioning whether what just happened is even allowed.
"I would say there seems to be a strong disagreement amongst lawyers that it's legal. Most lawyers I've spoken to would say that what he's done here is not legal," said Kelly Blidook, a Memorial University professor.
WATCH | Kelly Blidook of Memorial University speaks with Here & Now's Carolyn Stokes
Blidook said he'd like to see the matter go before a judge.
"I hope that it can come forward, and that's not because I hope that somebody overturns this, but more so, I think as many legal eyes as possible should look at what has occurred," he said.
Chaulk said in his view, he could order the delay as "there is no provision in the Elections Act that prevents it."
That's a reversal from Chaulk's earlier position — on Thursday morning in a letter to party leaders he wrote the Act had "limited options" for him to be able to delay an election, yet hours later, that's precisely what he did.
Regardless of its legality, Blidook gave Chaulk credit for his eventual actions on Thursday — "I think something had to happen," Blidook said — and while he has sympathy for how unique the current electoral situation is, at least some of pandemic disruption could have been predicted.
Wrap up election ASAP: Blidook
Blidook called for swift and decisive action to keep democracy moving and wrap the election up as soon as possible.
"We need to start thinking about how to conduct the vote, and go beyond sort of conventional means," said Blidook,
"If Mr. Chaulk is waiting around for a day when we can all shove to the polling stations and go inside gymnasiums for this to happen, I'd say at that point, he's not doing his job."
Blidook also wants to see "crystal-clear" communication from Chaulk, something he said hasn't yet been particularly evident.
"The country is actually looking at what we're doing now. I just think it needs to be done better than it's been done to this point."
Saturday's vote results will not be counted until a further point in time. Applications for special ballots are being accepted until 8 p.m. Saturday and must be mailed back by Feb. 25.
With files from The St. John's Morning Show and On The Go