“This may be just the beginning as opposed to the end” – Sandy Collins, former PC cabinet minister.
February 13, 2021, was supposed to be when voters in Newfoundland and Labrador would cast their ballots and decide who would represent and govern them for the next four years or so. However, in a somewhat expected twist, the fourth provincial election in Canada to be held under the COVID-19 pandemic became… complicated, to say the least.
On May 16, 2019, the last provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador, the governing Liberal Party lost its majority government. They were left in a minority government with only 20 seats out of 40 in the House of Assembly. The Progressive Conservatives won 15 seats, the NDP won 3, and two independent MHAs were also re-elected. Premier Dwight Ball resigned in 2020 and was succeeded by orthopedic surgeon Andrew Furey. By the time Furey was sworn as Premier, Newfoundland and Labrador was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Atlantic Canada was relatively untouched in the beginning by the pandemic. This included Newfoundland and Labrador, who, at the beginning of 2021, only had a total of 390 COVID-19 cases and ten active cases with no new cases. Due to provincial laws, an election must be held within a year of a new Premier being sworn in. With relatively low COVID-19 cases, Premier Andrew Furey decided that it was the right time to call an election for February 13, 2021.
Original Election & Rise in COVID Cases
When the election campaign began in January, the governing Liberal Party had a strong lead over its opponent. According to a Mainstreet Research poll, at the time, the Liberals led the Progressive Conservative by 36 points. Many pundits attributed this rise in popularity to the population’s satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic. There were already predictions that voters might give Andrew Furey a landslide victory. However, all went south during the “last days” of the election campaign.
On February 11, 2021, the areas surrounding St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital and biggest city, began to see a rise in COVID-19 cases. The Chief Electoral Officer, Bruce Chaulk, announced that voting in 18 out of the 40 electoral districts would be delayed indefinitely. One day later, once news that the rise of the COVID-19 cases in the St. John’s area was attributed to the B.1.1.7 variant —a.k.a. the British variant—, in-person voting was cancelled across the province.
The 6-week Delay
Following the cancellation of in-person voting, the entire province had to resort to mail-in ballots. Voters had until March 1 to send their ballots back. However, this proved to be unrealistic. The deadline to send back all mail-in ballots was delayed until March 5. When that proved to be unrealistic again, the deadline was pushed until March 25.
During this 6-week delay, Newfoundland and Labrador saw its total COVID-19 cases jump from 427 to 1,000 cases. Most, if not all, of the new cases, were attributed to the B.1.1.7 variant. Premier Andrew Furey was criticized as opportunistic by voters and fellow politicians for calling an election a few months before the one-year mandatory election deadline. Even though Liberal support was relatively stable, Furey’s disapproval ratings jumped up 18 points, according to the Angus Reid Institute.
On March 27, the preliminary results were finally announced. The Liberals managed to score a slim majority government, garnering just 22 seats, far below the expected landslide. Both the leaders of the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP both lost their seats. PC Leader Ches Crosbie lost re-election in Windsor Lake by more than 500 votes, and NDP Leader Alison Coffin lost re-election in St. John’s East-Quidi Vidi by just 53 votes. If both Crosbie and Coffin won their seats, the Liberals would end up with yet another minority government. These results were officialized on March 30, putting an end to the 10-week election campaign but not the turmoil. The results of the 2021 Newfoundland and Labrador election might be just the tip of the iceberg.
Problems, Irregularities, and Future Court Challenges
This election saw a record low voter turnout. Only 48% of the eligible voters cast a ballot. According to some, many voters who sought to get a mail-in ballot never received one. According to former NDP Leader Gerry Rogers, the fact that some voters were not able to cast their ballots may have led to surprisingly tight races, including the one in St. John’s East-Quidi Vidi. Former PC cabinet minister Sandy Collins echoed some of Rogers’ opinions. “The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have the most at stake. They’re into an expensive, mismanaged election that had restricted access, and I’m wondering how they will accept the legitimacy of this vote,” Collins said to CBC News.
In addition to low voter turnouts, there were issues that some ballots were not correctly translated or not at all translated to Indigenous voters who live in remote communities in Labrador, where turnout was just shy of 37%. According to Global News, Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk was revealed to have let four voters vote by phone, despite claiming such practice was illegal.
According to constitutional lawyer Lyle Skinner, all those issues might end up getting the Newfoundland & Labrador election in court, especially surrounding the idea that voters who did not get their ballot had their right to vote denied. However, Skinner does not believe that Newfoundland & Labrador election will be nullified unless all 40 electoral districts successfully challenge the results. “That does cost a lot of time and money,” Skinner said.
Spring Federal Election?
As previously mentioned, Newfoundland & Labrador is the fourth province to enter an election in the middle of the pandemic. However, unlike in Newfoundland & Labrador, the provincial elections in New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan went smooth. Interestingly, all four provinces are that all of their governing parties were rewarded with a majority government. In other words, the governing party in these four provinces all got a boost to their standings.
This point is relevant when you consider that the federal Liberal Party currently forms a minority government in Ottawa. Speculation about a snap federal election in the spring of 2021 has been circulated in Ottawa since last fall. However, the Newfoundland and Labrador election outcome has shown that holding an election too early in the middle of a pandemic may backfire politically and socially. As of right now, Canada is in the middle of a third wave of COVID-19 infections, with record new COVID-19 cases across some parts of the country. Health officials are even labelling this third wave as the worst one yet. On top of that, only 14% of the entire population have received just one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Holding a federal election this spring might prove to be reckless, not to mention politically dangerous to whoever forces the government to drop the writ of election.
Despite every federal political party’s wishes not to have a federal election this spring, the government will be presented a federal budget on April 19. Should this budget fail to get support in the House of Commons, the government will be obliged by convention to call a snap election, risking the chance of worsening Canada’s COVID-19 case numbers, just like it happened in Newfoundland and Labrador. All eyes will be focused in Ottawa on whether we will have a spring federal election in the middle of the deadliest pandemic in a century.
By Jacques Wang