Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.

The provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador has gone completely sideways. Due to an explosion of cases of COVID-19, Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk has changed the plan for the vote. Twenty-two of the province’s electoral districts will have access to in-person voting on February 13, but the remaining 18 ridings – where the cases are concentrated – will not have this option until a yet-to-be-determined date.

When Premier Andrew Furey requested a dissolution of the legislature on January 15, the province was reporting only five active cases of COVID-19; on February 12, it had 260. Three other provinces have held elections during the pandemic period without any major problem, so Mr. Furey could be forgiven for assuming that the same would happen in Newfoundland and Labrador. But now the province finds itself in a rare and highly undesirable situation of political purgatory: It is stuck in an election without a clear end date.

Story continues below advertisement

Postponing the election, given the surge of cases, is a no-brainer. However, this decision poses challenges from a legal and constitutional perspective and has the potential to undermine the real and perceived integrity of the electoral process.

The Elections Act gives the chief electoral officer (CEO) the power to extend the time for an election in emergency circumstances. However, there has been a lack of transparency around how the decision to partially postpone the election was made. The CEO seemed to be waiting for Chief Medical Officer Janice Fitzgerald to make the call, which she was understandably not inclined to do. No public servant, including and perhaps especially the CEO, wants to make decisions that could affect political and partisan outcomes.

After receiving messages from election workers indicating that they did not feel it safe to show up on Saturday, Mr. Chaulk made the announcement to postpone indefinitely the in-person vote in almost half of the province’s ridings. In a press conference on Thursday, Dr. Fitzgerald dodged questions about the extent to which her advice affected Mr. Chaulk’s decision. Mail-in ballots have been extended across the province until February 25; it is the role of the CEO to make this option available, but it would be outside the scope of Mr. Chaulk’s mandate to actively encourage voters to use it.

Until a new or returning government is sworn in, the Liberal government – which was in a minority position at dissolution – has to continue in a caretaker capacity, which means that it ought not make decisions that will introduce new programs, necessitate new spending or bind future governments. This is difficult to reconcile in a pandemic. Also, since the legislature is dissolved until election results are confirmed and the new House of Assembly can be summoned, there is no way for the government to test the confidence of elected representatives. There are no elected representatives. If this continues for any period of time, the government will lack the legitimacy it needs to lead the province through the economic and public-health crises it faces.

Opposition leader Ches Crosbie has suggested that the partial postponement creates two classes of voters, meaning those who vote later will have more information to go on. To be fair, we always allow voters to cast ballots at different times during a campaign. Advance polls are meant to provide convenience and accessibility to increase voter participation. However, the problem in this case is that we do not know how much time will lapse between the vote on February 13 and a second in-person vote for the affected ridings.

Things can change quickly in politics. It is possible that new issues, facts and arguments could come to light in the interim period that could affect voter preferences. Some voters who cast ballots on February 13 could end up regretting their choice but would not be permitted a do-over. None of this is ideal or particularly fair. Another unintended consequence of a staggered vote is suppressed voter participation; people might be inclined to check out of a protracted election during a pandemic. Parties and candidates will have to work hard to keep them interested. And when the CEO eventually decides to commence the in-person vote for the 18 affected ridings, the timing of this decision will be criticized by those who feel it confers an unfair advantage for certain parties and candidates.

Is it time to consider more seriously the option of online voting? Though vaccines are coming, we are far from out of the woods. Lockdowns might be more of a permanent feature of our lives than we want to acknowledge. Online voting could be a way to curtail electoral disruption during emergency periods. These are issues and questions that all jurisdictions in Canada should put a mind to as we collectively watch the situation unfold in Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly given the high likelihood of a federal election later this year.

Story continues below advertisement

Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer urged citizens to get tested on Thursday as COVID-19 infection levels kept rising. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said in a briefing that 100 new cases have been detected, almost doubling the total active cases in the province. The Canadian Press

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies