Nfld. & Labrador

An election plagued with problems raises questions about court challenges, reforms

The way things played out during Newfoundland and Labrador's 10-week election have some asking how we can avoid a similar boondoggle in the future. 

Some say Saturday's results are 'just the beginning'

Premier Andrew Furey speaks to the media after the Liberals' victory on Saturday. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

The dust has all but settled for Newfoundland and Labrador's general election, but the way things played out during the 10-week election have some asking how we can avoid a similar boondoggle in the future.

An outbreak of COVID-19 in the St. John's metro area forced the election to move to mail-in voting only, the deadline for those ballots to be returned was delayed several times and some people never received ballots at all, all contributing to the lowest voter turnout in the province's history.

NDP Leader Alison Coffin — who lost her seat in the St. John's East-Quidi Vidi district by 53 votes to Liberal candidate John Abbott — said the election was a resounding lesson in democracy and a "dark day" in the province's history. 

"Our democratic sensibilities have been assailed amid a pandemic and a Newfoundland and Labrador winter. We have the lowest voter turnout ever. Thousands more are complaining about the vote. Thousands more, again, are feeling disenfranchised," she said. 

"There are already speculations about court challenges waiting on the steps of the Supreme Court."

Alison Coffin says she was disturbed by how the Newfoundland and Labrador election was called and managed. (CBC)

Former NDP leader Gerry Rogers said on Saturday she doesn't believe the election is over yet, describing it as a "Mad Hatter tea party." 

With Coffin losing by only 53 votes, Rogers said, the results in that district may need further consideration. 

"I know a number of people in the district who tried desperately to get their ballots that Friday before the deadline and couldn't get through. This one might be held in question," Rogers said. 

"Now more than ever, boy, does this ever point to the need for democratic reform, electoral reform. We have to update and modernize our Elections Act. We must never, never see this kind of election again."

Former PC cabinet minister Sandy Collins agreed, saying Saturday's results could just be the beginning of a deeper dive into how the election was run.

"The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have the most at stake. They're into an expensive, mismanaged election that had restricted access, and I'm wondering how they will accept legitimacy of this vote," Collins said. 

"This may be just the beginning as opposed to the end."

An opportunity to fix things

Amanda Bittner, a political scientist at Memorial University, told CBC News on Saturday it doesn't take an expert to know this election was "highly irregular," but she hopes it will be an opportunity to re-examine how elections are run in Newfoundland and Labrador and elsewhere.

"We can fix things. Obviously they're broken, but we can potentially make them a bit better," she said.

"It might be actually a chance for us to improve things, and not just fix the actual problems that we have, but to actually be a leader and move things forward across the country and demonstrate that we can make elections more democratic if we try."

Political scientist Kelly Blidook said that while just 48 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, he had expected turnout to be even lower. 

Blidook said there were a number of problems with this election, and he is interested to see how the PCs and NDP react to both of their party leaders losing their seats — with PC Leader Ches Crosbie losing his by more than 500 votes.  

"On one hand, if you're going to contest the election as a whole, there may not be any great movement immediately in terms of what they want to do as leaders," he said. 

"Turnout may play into this, because if the question becomes one of, 'did the government, or did essentially Elections NL, facilitate peoples votes effectively?' a drop like this suggests, in fact, perhaps that didn't occur."

Memorial University political scientist Kelly Blidook says a court challenge will likely centre around an argument that voting wasn't properly facilitated.  (CBC)

Blidook said courts aren't going to look at this election's voter turnout to decipher if it was a "good election or bad election." He said the argument will likely be an element of evidence to support the claim that voting wasn't properly facilitated. 

Laurabel Mba, who sits on the board of directors of the St. John's Status of Women Council, said she's disappointed with the way the process unfolded and said there was a lot of uncertainty over how people would be allowed to exercise their rights to vote.  

"We had a while where people were thinking we were going to do drive-thru voting, which put people who did not have a car at a disadvantage," Mba said.

"And then when they came to the decision to do special ballots — you have to apply for those online — which put people with unstable internet, people who weren't comfortable using the internet, at a disadvantage."

Mba also noted some in Labrador received their postmarked election slips late, then had to hastily ensure they were returned on time.

"I just think the way it was put together was a little bit disheartening," she said. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Peter Cowan and Carolyn Stokes

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