ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Rough estimates from Newfoundland and Labrador's elections authority indicate it could be April before a winner is declared in the province's chaotic pandemic vote — almost two months after the original election day.
Elections NL spokeswoman Adrienne Luther said Monday she expected her office will begin counting votes later this week, and last election's experience indicates it could take a while. "There's no easy way to estimate a date of conclusion because it's entirely dependent on how many (mail-in ballots) we get back," Luther said in an email.
The provincial election was derailed in February by an outbreak of COVID-19 in the St. John's metro region. Voting day was Feb. 13, but less than 12 hours before the polls opened, Elections NL cancelled all in-person voting after health authorities announced a provincewide lockdown. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by March 12 in order to count.
Mail-in ballots take a lot of time, Luther said. Elections NL staff must verify the name and address of each ballot, she added. On average, her office opened and processed about 5,000 mail-in votes a day during the 2019 election, she said.
"An estimate right now is that it will take approximately 20 straight days — we will be working full weekends — to do around 100,000 votes," Luther said.
And that's on top of the 68,000 ballots that are already in the Elections NL office waiting to be counted, she said. Those ballots were cast before the outbreak upended the election and chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk has said there are at least 12,000 mail-in ballots among them.
Luther's office anticipates about 120,000 people requested a mail-in ballot before the Feb. 19 deadline. Some of those may have requested ballots for several people in a household, and some may not be returned at all. "Historically, we have had a very high rate of return on (mail-in ballots) but this election has been anything but predictable," Luther said.
If Elections NL maintains its rate of counting about 5,000 ballots a day, then it will take at least 24 days to count 120,000 ballots, not including the ballots received before the vote was delayed. That means residents of the province could have to wait until April to learn who won the election.
In the meantime, Chaulk is finalizing the process and protocols for scrutineers to oversee the process, Luther said.
"At this point," she said, "one scrutineer per party will be permitted in the building where counting will take place."
Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Andrew Furey, who called the election on Jan. 15, has said in previous interviews his government will remain in "caretaker mode" until someone is declared the winner.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2021.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press