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An example of the Newfoundland and Labrador Elections ballot is shown in St.John's, Monday, March 1, 2021.

Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

Nearly a month after Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial election was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials say the counting of the ballots has begun — at least for those that have been returned.

Ten teams of two people have begun the laborious process of tallying ballots, Elections NL spokeswoman Adrienne Luther confirmed Saturday.

Though the election has dragged on well beyond its originally scheduled voting date of Feb. 13 and ballot counting may not end until next month, not everyone was happy to hear the vote-counting process had begun Saturday.

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“The counting of the votes for who?” asked Patricia Johnson-Castle, the NDP candidate in the Torngat Mountains district, which includes the fly-in Indigenous communities along Labrador’s north coast.

Many voters in that district are still waiting for their ballots and some are worried they won’t arrive in time, she said.

Elections NL head Bruce Chaulk called off all in-person voting on Feb. 12, the night before people were originally scheduled to head to the polls. With a COVID-19 outbreak spreading rapidly through the St. John’s metro region, Chaulk said votes would instead be cast by mail.

After a few deadline extensions, ballots must now be postmarked by March 12 in order to be counted. All requests for ballots had to be in by Feb. 19.Luther confirmed Saturday morning that everyone in Labrador who requested a mail-in ballot before the Feb. 19 deadline would receive one through express mail.

Johnson-Castle said express mail still takes six days for mail get from St. John’s to Nain, where she lives. Flights have been cancelled because of weather all week, she said, so there’s already a backlog.

“If the weather comes down next week, I don’t know what happens,” Johnson-Castle said in an interview Saturday.

She said she also spent $600 from her campaign fund to translate ballot instructions into Inuktitut and Innu-aimun, the Indigenous languages used by many in her district. She acknowledged that Elections NL doesn’t normally provide translations of these materials, but said with in-person voting, people are on hand to help the many monolingual speakers of these languages cast a ballot.

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The Progressive Conservatives have also expressed concern about Labrador’s Indigenous voters being left behind.

“Our candidates in Labrador have been working with voters directly to ensure ballots are able to be filled out and residents can partake in this election,” said a statement from the party on Saturday. “The timing of this election has greatly affected the ability of Indigenous populations throughout our province to participate.”

In an emailed statement, the Liberal party, whose leader Andrew Furey is the incumbent premier, said they recognize the importance of Indigenous languages in the province.

“It is our understanding from supporters we connect with that, where needed, Elections NL is doing everything it can to help those who request accommodations with the special ballot process,” the statement said.

Furey first called the election on Jan. 15, and he’s faced criticism for the call throughout the campaign, even before the pandemic sent the process spiralling into chaos.

Luther had said previously that approximately 68,000 voted before Feb. 12 at advance polls or by special ballot, which includes mail-in ballots and ballots cast at district offices before election day. Her office estimates another 120,000 voters contacted the office to request a mail-in ballot after in-person voting was suspended.

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Elections NL staff can process about 5,000 mail-in ballots a day, she said, which means the vote tallying could carry on until April.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2021.

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