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Liberal Leader Andrew Furey, left to right, Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie and NDP Leader Alison Coffin pose for a photo following their televised debate from the floor of the House of Assembly in St. John's on Feb. 3, 2021.Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

All in-person voting in Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial election was called off late Friday night in response to a growing COVID-19 outbreak, just hours before half the province was to go to polling stations on Saturday.

The decision by Newfoundland’s chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk capped a chaotic final day in the campaign, one dominated by questions around the legality and legitimacy of a vote that had already been dramatically altered by a surge in cases in the capital region.

Voting in the provincial election will now be exclusively by mail, and ballots must be received by March 1. His announcement came after health officials held an emergency news conference to announce they’d confirmed the U.K. variant was behind the COVID-19 outbreak that hit the St. John’s region this week.

Voters in 22 of 40 ridings in the province were set to head to the polls Saturday, after Mr. Chaulk announced Thursday that in-person voting was suspended across all ridings in the Avalon Peninsula, which includes St. John’s. Some candidates complained the province’s chief electoral officer acted outside his authority to delay the vote only partially, while others were left confused about what the delay means for campaigning and spending rules.

Newfoundland is struggling to contain a surge in COVID-19 infections that forced the closing of schools and businesses around St. John’s. Public-health officials reported another 50 new cases of the coronavirus Friday, half the previous day’s total, but the province’s Health Minister warned people not to interpret that as a sign of progress.

A caretaker government will remain in place until the election can be completed.

Political observers say Premier Andrew Furey, who had to call an election within a year of his swearing-in last August, may be hurt by the decision to call one now that it is unravelling over COVID-19 fears. Mr. Furey declined to comment on the legality of the decision made by Elections NL, or say what he feels is the best path forward.

“We have a solution. It’s a different solution, but these are different times,” he said, during a press conference held prior to the decision to postpone the entre election. “It would be inappropriate and undemocratic and irresponsible for me to try to influence the democratic process.”

His political rivals said a staggered vote would have called into question the integrity of the electoral process, and complained some voters will have more time and more access to information than others. Progressive Conservative leader Ches Crosbie said the vote should be postponed across the entire province.

“It’s very shaky legal ground,” said Kelly Blidook, a Memorial University political science professor, on the earlier decision to postpone the vote only some ridings. “My opinion is we need to find some way to get this in front of a judge. … While this sits indefinitely, it’s really problematic.”

To help preserve the legitimacy of the vote, he argues the election needs to be wrapped up as quickly as possible. To reassure voters suddenly anxious about walking into polling stations, Elections NL should also offer drive-through voting across the province, he added.

Prior to the outbreak, Mr. Furey’s Liberals enjoyed support from around 60 per cent of voters, according to several opinion polls. The question now is how much voters may punish the Premier for forcing them into an election when so few have been vaccinated.

“The fact people are scared, they’re worried, all of this will probably come back to haunt the Liberals a little bit,” Dr. Blidook said. “The government had been very well-regarded up until this point. Prior to this, we were one of the best places to be, we were able to live life pretty close to normal.”

The timing of the election call was important for Mr. Furey, whose government wanted a vote held before a key economic recovery report – widely expected to recommend steep spending cuts and privatization of some government services – is released in April. That report, requested by the Premier and led by former Royal Mail chief executive Dame Moya Greene, is supposed to offer a road map out of the fiscal crisis facing the province.

“Everything is a mess,” said Rhonda Simms, a first-time PC candidate in Lewisporte-Twillingate, who suspended her in-person campaign after she found out a visitor to her campaign office had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“I never thought in a million years that everything would be so unorganized and confusing and unsafe.”

– with files from the Canadian Press

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