Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who were planning on heading to the polls on Saturday, will now be headed to the mailbox on the corner instead. Last Friday, in-person voting for the election was cancelled across the province, after having been suspended in half the province earlier in the week. The election will now be conducted entirely by mail-in ballot.
On Saturday, the province moved back to Alert Level 5 and full lockdown, after a significant spike in cases caused by a new variant of COVID-19 that is highly infectious.
Until recently, the province had been performing exceptionally well in terms of keeping case numbers low, but the sharp increase in cases now has triggered significant concern about the virus spreading out of control. The province’s consistently low case numbers this year also seem to have led to a false sense of security around the risks of holding the election. Consequently, it appears that very little contingency planning for a COVID-19 outbreak was conducted at the outset of the campaign.
There was much back and forth in NL leading up to this decision over who actually has the jurisdiction to postpone the election. Both the province’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Electoral Officer cited jurisdictional issues in their inability to take decisive action to postpone the vote until the operational challenges of staffing the election with volunteers rendered the situation untenable. Heading into the election, there was no clearly established threshold for COVID-19 cases that would lead to a pause, and that uncertainty has caused significant challenges.
Aside from the risks associated with in-person voting, another significant factor leading to the decision was a mass exodus of poll volunteers who had signed up to run voting stations dropping out due to concerns over COVID-19 exposure. This risk is particularly acute given that volunteers who help run polling stations on election day are often drawn from vulnerable populations, such as the elderly.
The decision also opens up significant new logistical and legal challenges. Voters have only been given a week to request their special ballot, raising concerns about making the online request for many in Northern NL and Labrador who might have poor internet service.
There’s also the question of how and when to count. Many ballots have already been sent in; this new change has extended the deadline to vote until March 5th. How much of the vote will be counted in the interim, and how will the votes be scrutineered are difficult questions to answer, especially bearing in mind the public health concerns around the COVID-19 variant. Through voter registrations, ID lists, and scrutineering (should it be permitted) the parties will have some sense of where the current results lie, which will undoubtedly affect how they position their campaigns in this new, unanticipated campaign period.
There are also some legal questions, including who has the ultimate authority to make the decision, and whether or not the province is actually required to hold an in-person vote. The last thing all parties involved would want is for the results of the election to end up in court, which again points to the lack of foresight applied to how the pandemic could impact the province’s election.
The decision to move forward with triggering the election may prove to have been a miscalculation with unforeseen political implications. Though Premier Andrew Furey still enjoys popularity according to recent polls, some have suggested that these latest developments may have an acute impact on his support and the final results of the election. PC Leader Ches Crosbie and NDP leader Allison Coffin have both raised concerns about the decision in a demand to meet with the NL Chief Electoral Officer, but thus far the Office has declined to meet over concerns around impartiality.
The situation has demonstrated the complexities of trying to run an election during the pandemic – something that politicos in Ottawa should be paying close attention to.The NL experience has major implications for decision-makers in Ottawa mulling over the prospect of a spring election; there are close ties between the NL Liberals and Team Trudeau, who have shared messaging, vote-pulling strategies, and other approaches with NL serving as somewhat of a testing ground for how the federal Liberals might approach a COVID campaign. If Premier Furey, who was considered the favourite heading into the election, takes a hit as a result of this debacle, that may dissuade those in Ottawa who had been licking their chops at a chance to go to the polls.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons is currently reviewing legislation that provides for temporary rules to ensure the safe administration of an election in the context of the (COVID-19) pandemic, which is up for debate this week. If those contingency plans weren’t critical before, Members of Parliament will likely have the real-time lessons in Newfoundland & Labrador at top of mind as that bill moves forward.