Newfoundland and Labrador election turbulence moves to courtroom as results contested
Published Monday, May 10, 2021 12:36PM ADT Last Updated Monday, May 10, 2021 4:53PM ADT
The leader of the provincial NDP, Alison Coffin, Kyle Rees, President of the NL-NDP and lawyer at O'Dea Earle, Allison Conway, lawyer with Budden and Associates, and Whymarrh Whitby pose at the O'Dea Earle offices in downtown St. John's on Monday, April 12, 2021. The CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- The debate over Newfoundland and Labrador's troubled, pandemic-delayed election moved to the courtroom Monday, where a judge was asked to order a recount in a hotly contested St. John's riding.
New Democrat Leader Allison Coffin has applied for a judicial recount in her East-Quidi Vidi district, where she lost her seat by 53 votes. Coffin has also filed a separate application to have the results in her district overturned and a byelection called. Former Progressive Conservative candidates Jim Lester and Sheila Fitzgerald have also filed applications to have the results in their respective ridings overturned.
"The hope is that this isn't something we have to worry about on a go-forward basis, because we're not going to have an election like this again," NDP president and lawyer Kyle Rees told reporters Monday outside the Supreme Court building in downtown St. John's.
Justice Donald Burrage told the court Monday he will rule by Wednesday on Coffin's application for a recount. The three applications to have results overturned will be heard at a later date.
Newfoundland and Labrador's election was called on Jan. 15 and was supposed to be held Feb. 13 but it dragged on for 10 weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak in the provincial capital led officials to cancel in-person voting and throw together a mail-in vote. Turnout was 48 per cent -- a record low for the province.
Chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk came under fire several times throughout the protracted campaign, including for allowing people to vote by phone despite telling the media it was illegal.
The NDP alleges in its court applications that Chaulk took ballot boxes home and that votes were thrown out because electors had signed ballots in the wrong spot, among other allegations.
Rees told the St. John's courtroom Monday that the party's scrutineer, Judy Vanta, was unable to properly observe the ballot-counting process, in part because she was on her own, scrambling to oversee the tallying in at least 10 different stations.
He said that at other times, Vanta was barred from seeing the day's vote counts. But what she did see, Rees said, raised enough questions about the legitimacy of the process to warrant a recount.
Burrage, however, repeatedly asked Rees why the claims in Vanta's affidavit were so vague.
Rees told reporters Monday he felt the situation is a catch-22. "In order to get a recount, we have to bring specific evidence," he said. "But the reason we're asking for the recount is we were prohibited from gathering that specific evidence."
Coffin lost to Liberal John Abbott, who was represented in court Monday by the party's lawyer, John Samms.
"John Abbott is not concerned about a recount. You can do 100 recounts, it's going to end up being the same result," Samms told reporters following the court hearing.
Elections NL lawyer Andrew Fitzgerald said his office isn't making a judgment call on whether the NDP's request for a recount has merit or not, though he did point out that all rejected ballots were reviewed by independent election officials.
"The chief electoral officer is not here trying to disenfranchise people," Fitzgerald told the court Monday.
Chaulk sat quietly and alone throughout Monday's proceedings, behind and slightly to the left of Fitzgerald. He kept his head down as he entered and when he left the court building.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2021.