N.L. election delayed for nearly half the province due to COVID-19

The chief electoral officer of Newfoundland and Labrador has postponed voting on Saturday for 18 districts in the province because COVID-19 cases have caused "considerable operational impacts."

Polling station staff dropping out as N.L. COVID-19 cases spike

The Newfoundland and Labrador general election is set for Saturday, but the rising number of COVID-19 cases have forced election officials to postpone voting in 18 districts. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

The chief electoral officer of Newfoundland and Labrador has postponed voting on Saturday for 18 of 40 districts as the province deals with a rapidly worsening outbreak in metro St. John's.

The election cannot go ahead in the districts — all on the Avalon Peninsula — as COVID-19 cases have caused "considerable operational impacts," said Bruce Chaulk in a release Thursday afternoon.

"Many election workers have resigned out of fear of interacting with the public on election day. We cannot hold traditional polls without the support of these people," Chaulk said.

Chaulk's announcement came just before Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald reported 100 new cases of COVID-19, most involving teenagers in the St. John's area. The province's number of active cases went from 16 on Sunday to 210 on Thursday. 

Following Fitzgerald's update late Thursday afternoon, Chaulk said in-person voting would be rescheduled in two weeks if public health conditions improve.

"However, based on the continually increasing COVID cases being reported in the region, there is no guarantee that we will be able to administer in-person voting safely at that time," Chaulk said.

"It will entirely depend on the province's COVID-19 situation."

The 18 districts encompass about half the province's population and include:

  • Cape St. Francis
  • Carbonear – Trinity – Bay de Verde
  • Conception Bay East – Bell Island
  • Conception Bay South
  • Ferryland
  • Harbour Grace – Port de Grave
  • Harbour Main
  • Mount Pearl North
  • Mount Pearl – Southlands
  • Mount Scio
  • Placentia – St. Mary's
  • St. John's Centre
  • St. John's East – Quidi Vidi
  • St. John's West
  • Topsail - Paradise
  • Virginia Waters – Pleasantville
  • Waterford Valley
  • Windsor Lake

All other districts will continue with voting on Saturday as planned, but those results will not be released until all voting has concluded. 

Special ballots extended

Special ballot deadlines are being extended to allow more people to vote by mail, regardless of their district. People can now apply to vote by special ballot until Saturday at 8 p.m. NT, the same time in-person voting wraps up at unaffected polls. 

People can apply through an Elections NL online form or by downloading an application and submitting it by either email or fax. They must also be able to show the necessary identification and proof of address.

If approved, voters must then complete their ballot and have it mailed back by Feb. 25.

An envelope with "Special Ballot Return Envelope" stamped on it, along with a blue medical mask sitting on a table.
People in any district in the province can now apply to vote by special ballot, with the deadline to submit an application set for Saturday at 8 p.m. NT. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Chaulk said all voting cannot shift to mail-in ballots because election law requires some in-person voting in every district — although his staff are now examining the legislation to make that clearer.

In the release, Chaulk also announced the drive-thru voting option at Confederation Building in St. John's has been cancelled. It was meant to allow some voters who are isolating because of the pandemic the means to cast their ballot.

COVID-19 situation escalated rapidly

The swift change of events continues a chaotic few days for Elections NL and the province.

The pandemic landscape in the province has shifted rapidly, going from a few scattered cases of COVID-19 to confirmed community transmission in the St. John's area and Thursday's milestone of the largest single-day confirmed case total of 100, nearly doubling the previous record set the day before.

The soaring caseload has resulted in mass staffing shortages at Elections NL, with dozens of people — many of them elderly — set to work the polls on Saturday dropping out or others placed into self-isolation and unable to work. One of Chaulk's own senior staff is now in isolation.

On Thursday morning, Chaulk wrote to political party leaders and pressed for the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, to delay the election.

"The current significant outbreak has had a profound impact on our ability to conduct a fair election, and immediate action is required to be taken," he wrote.

Bruce Chaulk, Elections NL's chief electoral officer, says he has had multiple returning officers tell him of mass resignations. (Mike Simms/CBC)

The power to postpone

While Chaulk had told CBC News earlier on Thursday he had some power to postpone an election, in the letter, he wrote of his limited ability to do so. In the letter, he called for Fitzgerald to use her "significant and clear powers" to act.

"To conduct a fair election, she must exercise those powers to delay the election," he said in the letter. 

Fitzgerald refuted Chaulk's assertions during her pandemic briefing on Thursday.

"I was advised that I do not have the authority to postpone an election, and what else was said is out of my control," she told reporters.

Hindsight is always perfect, but you can only make the decisions with the evidence that's available to you.- Andrew Furey

By Thursday afternoon, Chaulk said a section of the Elections Act that allowed changes on account of unforeseen or unusual circumstances did give him power to delay the vote.

While the election was always going to take place under the cloud of COVID-19, the last few months had seen few cases in the province, and Chaulk said the current spike "was certainly not foreseen by us here." 

Staffing shortages

COVID-19 was clearly having an impact in the lead-up to Saturday on Elections NL's operations.

One returning officer detailed the untenable situation on Thursday morning.

"Right now, we are down to, I would say, about 60 per cent of the workers that we need," said Judy Lockyer-Shields, the returning officer for Conception Bay East-Bell Island. "We had a full slate of workers on Monday morning."

A worker at a polling station in that district for the Feb. 6 advance poll tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week.

Lockyer-Shields oversees 12 polling stations and said as of Wednesday night, she didn't have enough people to operate more than two of them for Saturday's election.

She lost about 90 per cent of her sanitizing staff, who she said were mainly students affected by the virus. She's also lost faith in the ability to be able to hold the vote safely.

"It's just impossible to do a safe election when you don't have the proper staff to pull it off," Lockyer-Shields said.

Her district is now one of those where voting is postponed.

Chaulk said he's had returning officers tell him of dozens of other resignations, with staff combing through lists of up to 250 additional names to see if anyone could fill in, only for those people to also decline.

In his letter, Chaulk cited one election worker who wrote to him and said they had 51 resignations and three people in isolation in his district. His email ended in a plea, Chaulk said: "I need help."

With less than 48 hours before polls are set to open, the time constraints of training new staff — should anyone offer — also became a complicating factor. Lockyer-Shields said to get the 24 new poll clerks and district returning officers she requires would take two separate four-hour training sessions.

WATCH | Early Thursday, Bruce Chaulk told CBC's Heather Hiscox about the difficulties of holding a province-wide election during an outbreak

Elections NL under pressure to delay Saturday's election after COVID-19 outbreak

3 years ago
Duration 13:38
Newfoundland and Labrador's chief electoral officer, Bruce Chaulk, says he is weighing whether a safe election can be run in all districts of the province after the spike in COVID-19 cases. Lack of staff to help run the poll will be a key factor in the decision.

Delay entire election: PCs

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie called the 18-district voting delay "wholly unfair" and called for all 40 districts to be rescheduled in a press release shortly after the election changes were announced.

Crosbie said some voters now have more time than others to make up their minds and access to more information. He pointed to the impending release of the Greene report as one factor that may make a difference. An interim version of the report, which contains an economic task force's recommendations for changes to the province, is due on Feb. 28.

"The whole scenario is out of a Groucho Marx movie," Crosbie told reporters early Thursday evening. "This is an unprecedented, unbelievable situation. Words fail me in attempting to describe it."

He insisted his comments weren't for political gain. 

"I'm not trying to stir the pot ... If the public wants to be angry about what's happening here, that's their call," he said, referring to Furey's decision to call an election. 

NDP Leader Allison Coffin supported Chaulk's move, saying the special ballot extension was "very prudent and important," and repeated her party's previous criticisms of the election's overall timing.

"Certainly, the right decision to make, from my point of view, would have been to wait a little bit longer, see the Greene report, see a preliminary budget, get more vaccines rolled out, and wait until after winter, because we know transmission is higher in the winter," she said.

NDP Leader Alison Coffin, left, PC Leader Ches Crosbie, centre, and Liberal Leader Andrew Furey. Furey has come under fire from the other parties for calling a February election in the first place. (NTV/CBC)

'A welcomed pause': Furey

Furey said late Thursday that he was pleased with Chaulk's decision to postpone voting on the Avalon Peninsula.

"I know there was a lot of anxiety and stress around voting in person, particularly with the increasing numbers, so I think this is a welcomed pause, one that we were hoping to hear," Furey said.

As premier, Furey was bound by legislation to call an election before August and did so on Jan. 15. But Furey said he had no way of predicting the serious and startling turn the province's caseload has taken.

"Obviously, this is not a good scenario with respect to COVID for the metro [St. John's] region," Furey said. "With respect to the timing, hindsight is always perfect, but you can only make the decisions with the evidence that's available to you at the time.

"We had had months of very, very low numbers. Kids were playing sports. Life was pretty normal here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we had come through a high-risk situation with Christmas and New Year's, and the numbers remained low."

In recent days, Furey has appeared at daily pandemic media briefings and maintained that as a politician, he has no say in delaying any voting and to do so would be to interfere in a democratic process.

He had said any decision rested on Chaulk's shoulders as an independent officer.

"I'm not passing the buck. This is the law," he told the St. John's Morning Show Thursday.

One political scientist said there have been "mixed messages" from both Chaulk and Fitzgerald about where the authority to delay lies.

Kelly Blidook, a professor at Memorial University in St. John's, said Fitzgerald on Wednesday answered questions about the election "glibly" while Chaulk's earlier hesitation to postpone could be seen as an "abdication of his responsibility."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show, CBC News Network, Mark Quinn and Katie Breen