Nfld. & Labrador

Mail-in ballots, mass resignations, pandemic protocols: Election Q&A with Bruce Chaulk

A conversation with the chief electoral officer about where things stand with the provincial election.

Deadline to apply for mail-in ballot is Friday at 8 p.m.

Elections Newfoundland and Labrador chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk says it's too soon to speculate on an exact date for when the elections results will be released. (Radio-Canada)

With the deadline to apply for mail-in ballots fast approaching, and in-person voting off the table, there is still some uncertainty about when Newfoundland and Labrador's next government will be declared.

The election, initially set for Feb. 13, was postponed after the province went into Alert Level 5 on Friday due to the discovery of a coronavirus variant in an outbreak of COVID-19, effectively locking down the province.

Before that, when spiking case numbers were being reported, a number of electoral districts had sweeping resignations, as people were told to go into self-isolation.

Elections Newfoundland and Labrador chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk spoke with Radio-Canada's Patrick Butler on Wednesday to go over where things stand with the election. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: A number of issues [are] related to translation of ballots for Indigenous voters. Has that problem been solved?

We've been in consultation with the deputy minister, who's getting us in touch with the resources up there to be able to translate some of the election materials that we need in order to put in with the ballot kits.

Q: With translating the website, will that be ready by the deadline this Friday to apply to vote?

We'll work closely with the government officials up there to be able to see what we can do to make sure we can get the vote conducted in that area.

Q: Does that mean you're looking at other measures?

We're in discussion about whatever way we can in order to get this vote conducted safely up there, what extra measures we need to take in order to get them the information in order to be able to complete the ballot and get it back to us.

Q: If translation hasn't happened at this point, though, we're getting close to the deadline. That's pretty tight for getting ballots to Labrador and getting them back, especially when we're talking about northern communities. Is that a worry?

It's always a worry when you've got to worry about transportation of the materials back and forth, but we can adjust in that area … but we'll deal with that and we'll deal with that particular region on its own. That doesn't mean that everything else has to stop. We're gonna continue and we'll make sure that they're able to exercise their vote up there, their voice.

Q: Do you foresee a further delay for Labrador?

Not at this point.… We've been working very closely with Canada Post, who is delivering our materials, so they're very much aware and they've pledged their commitment to getting this stuff out and getting this stuff back to us so that we can get the vote concluded.

Q: What about voters who are currently in isolation, who can't leave their house to mail their ballot?

We're working through some of the issues with the chief medical officer of health, but I'm sure that as more and more people come out of isolation there may be fewer and fewer people that are affected by this.

It was communicated to me as that a significant portion of those are actually not of voting age, but their parents are, so we're acutely aware of that as to how we can get the mail out to them and that they can safely get to the mailbox or whatever or how they get their mail to their house.

The new deadline to apply for a special ballot for mail-in voting is Friday at 8 p.m. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Q: Is there a plan for those people?

Right now the first question for them to do is to apply, and then once they've applied, then we'll get the thing out.

Q: For Elections Newfoundland and Labrador to have the same amount of voter turnout [as last year, 60 per cent], you'll have to register about 150,000 people. Are you confident that you'll be able to do that?

Before the election even started, based on what I'd seen out of British Columbia and what I've seen in their increase in the amount of people that applied to vote by mail, I had roughly translated their population numbers into our numbers and anticipated … that we would have upwards of 60,000 people that would decide to vote by mail right from the beginning. And in reality we didn't have anywhere near that amount.

We only had, just a rough guess, about 12,000 that had applied to vote by mail. The rest of the 30-odd thousand that we had vote by special ballot voted in person in our district offices or at Elections NL here and in the long-term care facilities around the province.

As long as somebody has gotten in touch with us and they want to vote with a mail-out kit, we will get them a mail-out kit. There are other people that may not want to vote by mail for any other number of reasons and I have to respect their decision to do that.

Q: A number of people have complained, who chose to vote in advance by the mail-in ballot method, who applied well before any of this … and they've been tracking their ballot and they sent it early in February and it still hasn't arrived at Elections Newfoundland and Labrador. Is that a worry for you?

No, because we know what we sent out, we'll know what we get back. We'll be able to track it ourselves in most of those cases, so it may not end up showing in the system, but we actually probably have it. I'm not as concerned about the tracking.

When the mail gets over here it's in very large tubs, multiple containers at one time, so we're quite comfortable that the tracking — it may be a case that the tracking wasn't updated, but that we actually have the ballot here.

Q: Why didn't Elections NL have a Level 5, worst-case-scenario plan going into this election, given, as you stated previously, the amount of time that there was to prepare?

We were going along based on all of the information that we had at hand at the time. We've had very few cases in this province and in actual fact we've had fewer cases than most other jurisdictions. [There are] jurisdictions that have more cases per day than we've had in total cases in the province.

[On staffing at polling stations]: We had more people hired to be able to do the increased sanitization that was required based on the advice from the chief medical officer of health, and so we had all of these extra measures in place.

Nobody can prepare for your staff to resign en masse, and if you lose 80 per cent of your staff, you cannot recover two days before an election. That is just impossible, that's reality.

Chaulk says in-person voting was a part of the plan under all alert levels for the provincial election, but with mass staff resignations amid the outbreak, it was not possible to run polling stations in a number of districts. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

Q: But should that have been a plan for a scenario where no in-person voting was possible, be that because of the lack of staff or because of the fact that we're in Alert Level 5 and everyone has to isolate?

We were prepared. The voting process was all put in place with the advice of the chief medical officer of health, so we had all of the measures to allow people to come in and vote safely.… You could conduct that vote at any level of the pandemic if you follow all of the advice of the medical officer, but you still can't do anything if you don't have the people there to be able to run the election.

So the same measures that we would have put in place for Level 2, 3, 4 or 5 for how the vote could be conducted safely were all done, and that was all the procedures in place. We anticipated more people to vote by mail in the beginning because we put it out there right from the beginning.… We had 16 days where someone could go and vote in person at one of our returning offices and almost 70,000 people took us up on that, between that and the advance polls.

But we were anticipating that we would have had upwards of 60,000 that would have decided to vote by mail right from the beginning. That didn't materialize.

Q: There wasn't a scenario where you had all mail-in ballots, as we're seeing right now?

We were anticipating 60,000 but if we had had 200,000 apply right from the beginning for vote by mail kits then we would have accommodated it right from the beginning. But it was always anticipated that this election would have in-person voting at the end of the day, and we were only basically a couple of days away from [the election], the cases started popping up.

Q: Can you tell me about the help that Elections Canada has offered, what they're going to do?

On the weekend, actually, we engaged another call centre to be able to handle the increased volume of calls that we're receiving here, so a local call centre with experience working with elections, Telelink, became available and we started using them.

I then was talking with the chief electoral officer of Canada — their call centre is currently active because they were getting ready for an election coming up for themselves, sometime whenever, so he offered to be able to make their call centre be available.

Elections Newfoundland and Labrador's deadline to receive mail-in ballots at their headquarters in St. John's is March 5. (CBC)

Q: What do we know about when the results are going to come out and how the votes are going to be counted, when we're gonna know who forms the next government?

The special ballot counting process is covered in the legislation … and I've promised the parties that I would get them information as to how we're going to start to count those, because traditionally they're always counted before election day. But the last time there was a little over 9,000 of them before.

But they're all counted here at Elections NL headquarters, and the parties themselves are involved in the oversight of that process as scrutineers.

Q: The last day to receive ballots is March 5, but do we know when we're gonna have a result?

That's why I say it depends on what the volume of the mail is at that point. If we've got them all back in on the 5th, or the majority of them back in on or before the 5th, it is likely that we can be counting those earlier, so we may be counting some of the special ballots before they're all back.

Once we've got all the mail gone out and all the kits out, then we'll switch over to whatever process we need in order to start the process of counting these. But the publication of the results won't occur until the end.

Q: So will we know on the 5th who the next premier is, who the next government is, do you think?

I'm not sure.

Q: How confident are you that we're not gonna have to push back March 5th as the final day for getting your vote in?

It's really too soon to make any decision on that right now. That will all depend on what the numbers are at that time. If I see that that I've got 95 or 96 per cent of the ballots in, then I'd certainly feel comfortable starting to count the rest of them, and getting close to having the published amount. But if I've only got 50 per cent of them on March 5, then we're having a different conversation. So a lot of it will be how quick they go out, how quick they get them turned around, and how quick they get them back.

But if I've got a ballot in my hand that came from an elector, I'm going to make every effort I can to count it.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler

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