Nfld. & Labrador

'Unprecedented' spoilage, harassment of staff alleged in letters between Chaulk and parties

Letters between Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief electoral officer and the parties say an “unprecedented” number of ballots may have been spoiled and that complaints from candidates toward Elections NL staff have bordered on “harassment and unparliamentary conduct.”

NDP says scrutineers aren't getting enough access to the vote count

A last-minute voter drops their ballot off at Elections NL in St. John's on Thursday. (Josee Basque/Radio-Canada)

Letters between Newfoundland and Labrador's chief electoral officer and the parties suggest an "unprecedented" number of ballots may have been spoiled and say complaints from candidates toward Elections NL staff have bordered on "harassment and unparliamentary conduct."

In a letter sent to Elections NL chief Bruce Chaulk about a week into the vote count, NDP president Kyle Rees wrote that "there are an unprecedented number of ballots deemed spoiled so far."

"More are expected as the vote continues," states the letter, dated March 12.

Elections NL denies the claim.

"There is no basis for the claim that there has been an unprecedented amount of spoilage," Chaulk said in an email Thursday. "Elections NL will not know the percentage of rejected ballots until counting is complete and that process is currently ongoing."

Rees's letter also says that according to the party's scrutineer, "a number of ballots" have been rejected during the count because voters didn't sign their names in cursive writing, or because they signed in the wrong place.

"In our view, making such a determination about a signature vs. printing verges on artistic interpretation, and should not be a valid reason for rejecting a ballot," the letter states.

Kyle Rees, president of the NDP, sent a letter to Elections NL on March 12 detailing concerns related to scrutineers and an 'unprecedented' amount of spoiled ballots. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Rees added his party believes voter instructions in some kits weren't clear, leading to a large number of ballots also being rejected because electors wrote "I vote for" on their ballot paper.

Chaulk said, however, that instructions for voter were very clear and that ballots already say "I vote for." He added there is no requirement for ballots to be signed in cursive writing. 

Not enough access for scrutineers, says NDP

In the letter, Rees also notes that due to COVID-19 rules put in place by Elections NL, only one scrutineer per party is permitted to observe the count at the agency's headquarters in St. John's. With vote counting happening at many tables at once, Rees says, scrutineers are being shown only rejected ballots. In theory, scrutineers should be able to observe every aspect of the voting process.

"It's hard to watch 25 tables at once," Rees said in an interview Tuesday. In a normal election, he said, scrutineers would be present at every polling station. 

Given the numerous changes and last-minute decisions made since the beginning of the campaign, Rees said, "I think it's extra important that Elections NL stays transparent and allows the scrutineers to participate in that oversight process.

"It's important not only that our election be fair but it must be seen to be fair."

In a statement, Progressive Conservative spokesperson David Maher said the party's scrutineer "has been working 10-12 hour days since the beginning of voting, doing everything in their power to ensure each vote is scrutinized and properly counted."

"We are confident our scrutineer has done the very best work under the circumstances, but there is no doubt scrutinizing this election has been the most challenging in memory," Maher said. 

The Liberals, meanwhile, refused to weigh in when CBC News asked Leader Andrew Furey's campaign office whether Furey harboured similar concerns to the NDP.

The office did not answer those questions, instead saying the elections agency communicated with all parties prior to vote tallying.

"The Liberal government does not control Elections NL, as the other political leaders know," the statement said. "It is completely inappropriate for political parties to interfere in the independent democratic process of running an election."

Access to key records only granted 1 week into count

The NDP's letter also states that during the first week of counting, when several thousands ballots were tallied, scrutineers were unable to see vote tally sheets used to record results.

"We have heard from our scrutineer that Elections NL workers have been directed by you [Bruce Chaulk] to go to great lengths to ensure that scrutineers do not see the tallying of votes," says the letter, adding that the party had heard reports of workers "using their bodies to physically cover up tally sheets" and "mixing up piles of counted votes for particular candidates to prevent estimation/guessing [of] results."

Rees said Thursday that scrutineers have access to the vote to monitor the process, but cannot spy on behalf of the parties. Each scrutineer must swear an oath not to communicate results with their parties while the count is ongoing.

Chaulk voices frustrations at candidates

On March 14, in an email sent to all the parties two days after receiving the NDP letter, Chaulk said he would allow scrutineers to see tally sheets for each voting box counted. He also said Elections NL staff were "working diligently to perform its counting role in the context of a global pandemic."

"This election is unlike any other, and we must be cognizant of the health and safety of all individuals in our facility, including your scrutineers," Chaulk said in the email.

He also voiced frustrations over complaints received from candidates by Elections NL staff.

"While I recognize that this process has taken longer than expected, it would be appreciated if candidates making complaints do so in a civil manner," Chaulk wrote. "My staff have worked extremely hard during this election and the tone and manner of some complaints border on harassment and unparliamentary conduct."

Chaulk said Thursday he wouldn't comment further on the allegations contained in the email.

Rees, as well as spokespeople for the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties, said they are unaware of the incidents referenced by Chaulk.

Chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk sent an email to the parties on March 14 alleging complaints from candidates that bordered on 'harassment and unparliamentary conduct.' (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

All ballots will be kept until final result

In its initial letter on March 12, the NDP asked Chaulk to document the number of ballots rejected because of improper signatures or because voters wrote the words "I vote for." It also asked that ballots be sequestered by date, so that in the event of a court decision invalidating one of several postponements to the deadline for voting, it would be possible to determine which ballots were still valid.

On March 21, Chaulk replied in a letter that Elections NL is not required by law to sequester ballots based on the date they are received.

"Voters are aware of the candidates and political parties running in this election and it is their decision to decide when to cast their ballot and for whom," Chaulk said.

On Thursday, he added that all ballot papers, whether rejected or not, are stored by Elections NL in the event of a recount or controverted election application.

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