Nfld. & Labrador

Last-minute flurry means some won't get a mail-in ballot, says Bruce Chaulk

A last-minute flurry to order a mail-in ballot means some will not get to vote, but Newfoundland and Labrador's chief electoral officer is offering very little sympathy for the latecomers.

Chief electoral officer says voters had four ways to apply over extended period

Chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk is defending the mail-in ballot application processing, saying prospective voters had four options for applying for a voting kit prior to Friday's deadline. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A last-minute flurry to order mail-in ballots on Friday night means some will not get to vote, but Newfoundland and Labrador's chief electoral officer is offering little sympathy for the latecomers.

"I have heard the complaints. But if you leave it to the last minute … you bear a certain responsibility on yourself for not getting it done," Chaulk told CBC News on Saturday.

The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot expired at 8 p.m. on Friday, while voters have been given more time — until March 12 — to return their ballots to Elections NL.

Originally, all voting kits were to be received by Elections NL on March 5 in order to be counted, but after consultation with Canada Post, that has been changed to a postmark of March 12.

"Unless something drastic happens in between, that will be the date," said Chaulk.

"This allows Newfoundlanders and Labradorians three weeks to receive, mark and return their ballots."

Meanwhile, after steadily dropping off throughout the week, Chaulk said, call volumes spiked in the hours before the deadline, and this "caused problems" for those trying to connect with the call centre.

As a result, "there would have been people that weren't successful in making their applications," said Chaulk, though he could not provide any estimates.

"There were higher volumes than anyone anticipated, given the way the volumes were all week, and that they were steadily declining."

The new deadline to return special ballots by mail is March 12. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Chaulk said there are no plans to extend the application deadline, and offered a blunt answer when asked about the unsuccessful applicants.

He said citizens were given four options — online, email, fax and telephone — to request a ballot.

He said the online portal, email and fax options were available 24 hours a day for eight days, while the call centre, staffed with up to 76 operators at times, was available for 12 hours daily.

"We've given them ample time," said Chaulk.

Exact number of ballots requested unknown

It's the latest hiccup in an election process that has been upended by a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases in the province, a return to Alert Level 5 lockdown measures, and still no clear answer as to when final results will be released.

The lockdown forced Elections NL to suspend in-person voting after nearly 80 per cent of polling workers gave up their positions, and public health measures made it impossible for ask voters to cast a ballot in the traditional format.

As of Friday's deadline, Chaulk said there were 110,000 "contacts" with Elections NL, though it's likely the actual number of voting kits that will be sent out will be higher. 

Chaulk said it was common to have one person from a household contact Elections NL, with two or more eligible voters in that household.

He said the exact number of ballots requested will not be known until the applications are processed, and that work is ongoing.

In addition, more than 60,000 people voted early by mail-in ballot or in-person voting on or before Feb. 6.

Nearly 215,000 votes were counted in the 2019 general election, representing just over 60 per cent of registered voters.

With this election limited largely to mail-in voting and advance polls, there have been concerns about whether that will deny some citizens their constitutional right to vote, and whether it will mean a lower voter turnout.

But despite the concerns, Chaulk said the election will be legitimate and he's pleased with the level of response to the mail-in process.

As for voter turnout, Chaulk said it's not something he's preoccupied with.

"It is never a metric we concern ourselves with here in this office. We just provide the venue for the person to be able to decide whether or not they want to vote," he said.

Meanwhile, Chaulk expects Elections NL will receive all the ballots by around March 17, but he said counting may begin prior to that.

He could not give an exact date as to when the final results will be revealed, but said, "Everyone wants this finished and nobody wants this finished any quicker than me."

About 24,000 voting kits had been mailed out as of Friday, according to Elections NL

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador