Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. on track for record-low 51% voter turnout: Elections NL data

Opposition party leaders are concerned the low number of mail-in ballots requested could threaten the legitimacy of the next government.

Lowest turnout to date saw 55% of voters mark a ballot in 2015

Elections NL is estimating 120,000 mail-in ballot requests. Even if all of those ballots are returned, unsullied and on time, the 2021 election will still have a historically low voter turnout. (CBC)

Data from Elections NL requested by CBC News this week is raising red flags for opposition party leaders, who say a record-low turnout would threaten the validity of election results.

Elections NL estimates there have been 120,000 requests for mail-in ballots, in addition to the 68,259 special or advance ballots already received. 

If all those ballots are returned, it would equal a 51 per cent voter turnout — a historic low for Newfoundland and Labrador, which during its last election in May 2019 saw 60.7 per cent of eligible voters mark a ballot.

The current lowest voter turnout, 55 per cent, came in 2015.

"The right to have unimpeded access [to vote] … is absolutely central to the legitimacy of government," said PC Leader Ches Crosbie, in reaction to those numbers, in an interview Tuesday.

The Tories have repeatedly pointed fingers at Liberal Leader Andrew Furey for calling an election prior to widespread vaccine availability. Crosbie contends Furey ought to have pushed back his 12-month deadline to drop the writ, or at the very least, waited until summer.

"That negligence, that's why we are where we are right now," Crosbie said.

Furey wouldn't do an interview, instead sending a statement through his campaign office.

"Our Liberal team is hearing from many voters who are looking forward to voting, and we hope this will contribute to a good turnout," the emailed statement said. "While it is too early to know what the voter turnout rate will be, our party hopes that Elections NL's work to navigate this unprecedented election will allow voters to safely cast their ballots." 

Furey has said that when he called a January election, he did so based on epidemiological modelling, which did not account for the current COVID-19 outbreak throttling the province.

That outbreak led Elections NL to postpone election day, and cancel all in-person voting. It had originally been scheduled for Feb 13, just one day after the province's top doctor ordered strict lockdown measures to contain a rapidly spreading coronavirus variant.

Turnout not yet certain

Elections NL said because it had a wide array of application methods — including fax and phone — not all its requests have been processed, and it can't yet supply a final total.

But Crosbie is betting on a portion of mail-in ballot requests not making it back to Elections NL in time for the March 12 deadline. 

Factoring in spoiled, late, and unreturned ballots against the number of requests, Crosbie said it's "simple mathematics to see that the voter turnout is likely to be less than 50 per cent."

When questioned directly, Crosbie wouldn't go so far as to say his party would challenge the election results, but called the prospect of legal action "almost inevitable."

NDP Leader Alison Coffin and Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie are expressing concerns over the estimated voter turnout rate. (CBC)

"The whole situation — things being made up, ad hoc, that affect voting rights [that] are constitutional in nature — invites litigation," he said. "It's such a mess."

He also wouldn't say whether he would accept an argument for illegitimacy if the PCs were to win.

"Whoever emerges from this," he replied, "is going to have a dubious mandate to get things done."

NDP Leader Alison Coffin stressed the tasks directly ahead of the electorate. At the moment, she said, anyone who did get a ballot should focus on submitting it in time.

"Then we can figure out the ramifications of everything that's happened," she said.

Given the obstacles voters face, however, she's not shocked to hear about Elections NL's data. Much of what happened, she said, could have been examined and managed by the Liberals to address types of access.

"I think it would have been the responsible thing for the Furey government to look at modernizing the Elections Act," Coffin said.

While Coffin says her party has not yet decided on whether they'll pursue a legal challenge, the NDP are asking for online feedback to reform the Elections Act once a government has been formed.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


  • A previous version of this story stated the incorrect number of special or advance ballots already received. In fact, that number is 68,259.
    Feb 24, 2021 1:57 PM NT

With files from Patrick Butler


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