Phone lines return at N.L. election offices as voters rush for mail-in ballots amid pandemic | CBC News

Election offices in Newfoundland and Labrador have been flooded with applications for special ballots, leading to hiccups as voters try to secure their voting kits during the extended provincial election.

More than 20,000 people have applied for mail-in ballots since Thursday, when the applications unexpectedly reopened across the province.

But on Saturday morning, voters calling for assistance could not connect: the voicemail boxes were full, and phone calls could not be answered due to a “deep clean” in the offices.

The issue was resolved by about 2 p.m. NT, but not before some voters spent hours Saturday trying to get through to the office. Voters have been told they have until Monday evening at 8 p.m. NT to apply for a mail-in ballot.

“This situation remains fluid. We will be re-evaluating the deadlines announced to ensure that we are able to assist as many people as possible,” Bruce Chaulk, the province’s chief electoral officer, said in a statement.

The rush comes after unprecedented changes to Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial election.

Chaulk cancelled in-person voting across the province late Friday night, less than 11 hours before residents were set to head to the polls.

The move away from in-person voting is a first in Canadian history. Voting will now take place entirely by mail.

Chaulk is defending his plan as the best way to complete voting.

“There’s only so long we can let this process go on, and it made sense at this point,” he said.

Chaulk’s announcement came on the heels of the discovery in St. John’s on Friday evening of what is known as the B117 variant of the coronavirus, first detected in the U.K.

“You don’t know how long this is actually going to be actually in the community…. It’s easier to try to transition people off to the mail-in process and get it finished.”

In a statement, an official with Newfoundland and Labrador’s New Democratic Party said there was “confusion” surrounding voting and asked for an all-party meeting with Elections NL.

“It is hard to believe everything will be straightened out by 8 p.m. Monday,” said Kyle Rees, who serves as president of the party.

The mail-in process is tried and true.– Bruce Chaulk, N.L. chief electoral officer

The province’s growing COVID-19 outbreak had already thrown the election into disarray.

In-person voting had previously been delayed for 18 districts on the Avalon Peninsula, and several mayors across rural Newfoundland and Labrador were stepping in to shut down town halls and community facilities that were going to be used as polling stations.

As well, numerous election staff were quitting over fears of COVID-19 infection. 

Meanwhile, Chaulk said that as of Friday night, about 65,000 people had already voted in either advance polls or through mail-in ballots. 

Chaulk said that Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald’s orders for a strict lockdown made him pull the plug on in-person voting altogether — and he says he is allowed to do it.

“The mail-in process is tried and true,” he said. “If you think of it, everybody could have voted by special ballot, and nobody would be left to vote at the polls. It’s just one of the different methods of allowing a person to vote.”

Logistical challenges

But the logistical challenges of getting kits to voters will be formidable, and voters will not be sent kits automatically. Instead, they had been instructed to go online to ask for them. 

That’s caused problems in the northern Labrador community of Rigolet, which went without internet and phone access for most of the last week. 

Poor internet service is just one complicating factor for Innu in Natuashish, according to George Rich, a former chief of the Mushau Innu First Nation.

He said official election material has not been translated into Innu-aimun, and plenty of elders don’t speak English. He also has serious concerns that weather delays will make it impossible to return a ballot to Elections NL by March 1.

A lineup at the general store in Natuashish on Saturday morning. Natuashish is one of several communities in the Torngat Mountains district that has no road access. (Anthony Germain/Twitter)

“It’s very difficult, it’s very difficult to be able to do this. Even though they extended until Monday, it’s not going to give people enough time to get everything in order to get their mail-in ballots,” Rich said.

“I was talking to my cousin … he said no, I’m not going to be able to vote this time, because I don’t know how.”

Both communities are in the Torngat Mountains district, the most northerly and isolated district in the province, and not one community has road access.

Rich said the district has always had low voter turnout, and he wants to see solutions to make it easier.

On Saturday, Chaulk said his office has been “hearing the concerns” about internet and computer access. He told people who can’t get online to call Elections NL.

“If we can verify that you are on the voters list, we will issue you a voting kit.”

Election campaign takes a sharp turn

Chaulk’s changes have effectively extended the election campaign: Voters now have an additional 16 days to complete and return their ballots. 

Elections NL has said that campaigning will be allowed to continue during the de-facto extension, though candidates won’t be allowed to spend any more money.

NDP Leader Alison Coffin said Friday night that she’s left with many questions about what exactly it means in practice.

Liberal Leader Andrew Furey called the provincial election in January, but an extension now means it won’t be finished for another two weeks. He’s faced increased criticism over his timing as the province’s COVID-19 outbreak grows. (Paul Daly)

“We’re looking for a little bit more guidance on that. I mean, remember this is changing rather rapidly,” she said. “So what we heard earlier today, it feels like three days ago now.”

Coffin said she agrees with the decision to eliminate in-person voting, but she added she believes the events of the past week are likely going to lead to legal challenges.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie said in a statement that the province should “hold our political leaders accountable.”

“Our province deserves a thoughtful conversation about why it took so long for us to reach the right decision in postponing this election,” he said. “That discussion must wait for another day.”

Liberal Leader Andrew Furey said on Friday night that he has been focusing not on the campaign but on his responsibilities as premier and ensuring that people in the province are safe.

What’s also unclear is when exactly voters will know who will form the next government. 

“It depends on how many additional people or additional resources I’ll be able to use to count them, and how many resources I’ll need to get the ballots out in the mail,” he said.

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