N.W.T. byelection in Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh will only use mail-in ballots

Voters in the riding of Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh will elect their new MLA in early February 2022 but they won’t be going to the polls in person — instead, for the first time in the N.W.T., voting will take place entirely by mail-in ballot.

The byelection to replace former MLA Steve Norn is set for Feb. 8, 2022.

The N.W.T.'s first territorial election conducted entirely by mail-in ballot will be held for the riding of Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh on Feb. 8, 2022. (CBC)

Voters in Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh will elect their new MLA in early February 2022 but they won't be going to the polls in person — instead, for the first time in the N.W.T., voting will be done entirely through mail-in ballot. 

N.W.T. chief electoral officer Stephen Dunbar said his office has been keeping a close eye on COVID-19 cases both in the territory and nationally. 

"After seeing the Omicron variant cases, especially in Ontario and Quebec, really start to explode last week, and with the announcement over the weekend by the chief public health officer that a case had been detected here in the Northwest Territories, we chose to make the proactive decision to go to a mail-in election only," he said. 

"If one of the four communities [of N'Dilo, Lutselk'e, Fort Resolution and Dettah] was put into containment, we would not be able to run an in-person election on election day."

According to Dunbar, this will also be the first territorial election that has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"During the last byelection, in the summertime, there was no active COVID-19 in the territory," he said. 

But some voters in the N.W.T. have already faced significant barriers to casting a ballot this year.

During September's federal election, some constituents were not able to cast a vote because they had gone into COVID-19 isolation after the deadline to register for a mail-in ballot had passed. 

Other jurisdictions, like Newfoundland, had to delay polls last year because of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Dunbar is hoping to avoid a repeat of either of those scenarios. 

"If we proactively provide a ballot to every voter on the voter list, then there's no risk of them missing a deadline to apply for that ballot," he said.

"[And] it is certainly our hope that by getting out right now, making the decision right now and publicizing it as best we can, we'll be avoiding the circumstances where we have to try and make changes mid-event."

Mail-in ballots

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh constituents can register to vote, or check their registration, on the Elections N.W.T. website.

To receive a ballot in the mail in time for the byelection, voters must be registered by Jan. 29, 2022. 

Elections N.W.T. is also changing what the mail-in ballots will look like to make sure "people have the easiest possible way to vote."

Rather than sending people a simple write-in ballot, which would normally be the case for mail-in voting, the ballots will have all the candidates' names and photos on them.

Dunbar said he and his coworkers are also exploring creative solutions to make sure that everyone who wants to vote has the chance to do so, including drive-through ballot drop-off sites and mobile polls where election workers would collect ballots directly from people's houses. 

"Certainly, it would be my preference to run a normal byelection event [with] in-person polling," said Dunbar. "But with the transmissibility that we're seeing with the Omicron variant, we really felt that it was not going to be a safe or even possible option for us." 

The candidate elected in the byelection will replace former MLA Steve Norn, who resigned in November shortly before being expelled from the Legislative Assembly for breaching its code of conduct

The nomination deadline for the byelection is Jan. 14, 2022.