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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: An election that’s in serious trouble

Elections signs for the three main parties are seen in St. John's. – Joe Gibbons
Elections signs in St. John’s for the Liberals, NDP and Progressive Conservatives. The NL Alliance also ran candidates in this election. — Telegram file photo

The sad part is that you can understand it.

All of it.

You can understand why the province’s chief electoral officer, Bruce Chaulk, might say that prospective voters share the blame for not being able to get through on Elections NL phone lines, and therefore didn’t get the special ballots they were entitled to in the current provincial election. That they won’t get ballots, even though they acted within the specific timeframes laid out by Elections NL.

When delays cropped up in supplying people with ballots in their own languages, you can understand Chaulk moved ahead with all-English ballots to ensure that the electoral process would move forward in a timely way.

You can even understand why, when some voters complained publicly about not receiving their special ballots, Chaulk might have made sure their ballots were delivered to them, even if that meant bringing them himself.

At the core of all of this is fair and equal access for every eligible voter to be able to vote.

I confess, I did exactly the same thing myself as a newspaper editor on a day when we printed an inaccurate crossword puzzle. We had planned to reprint the crossword in the next day’s paper, but a caller said that would mean he’d have to buy another copy of the paper to get what he’d already been promised and had already paid for once. So I took a copy of the accurate crossword to his house.

But an election isn’t a newspaper, and a crossword puzzle isn’t a ballot.

At the core of all of this is fair and equal access for every eligible voter to be able to vote.

That’s so central that it’s part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: section 3 of the Charter reads, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” It’s such a primary right that it can’t be altered by the Charter’s notwithstanding clause

Buried in the federal Department of Justice’s explanation of the right is a pretty clear explanation of its purpose (I’ve taken out the specific legal citations): “The purpose of section 3 is to protect the right of each citizen to play a meaningful role in the electoral process. Participation in the electoral process has an intrinsic value independent of its impact upon the actual outcome of elections. Denial of the right to vote affects one’s dignity and sense of self-worth.”

These are unusual times, and the pandemic has meant unusual solutions — some of them stop-gap measures, others, best attempts. But it’s not about best efforts.

I can accept that everything may have been done with the highest of intentions and in a rush to make up for the sort of crisis planning that should have taken place well in advance of an election being called — especially because everyone knew we were already in the midst of a global pandemic.

But I can’t accept that it’s all going to work out just fine.

Stop to consider how this election has unfolded, and contrast that with the simple premise of what has to happen to violate section 3: “To make out a breach of section 3, a claimant must demonstrate an actual interference with their section 3 right.”

In other words, interference like unequal treatment by elections officials, or the failure to even get a ballot after a prospective and otherwise eligible voter followed the specific and universal rules laid out for getting one.

Truthfully, your vote or my vote or anyone’s vote might have very little effect on the outcome of an election. But the right to vote comes before that point.

I’m afraid this provincial election is running down a rabbit hole.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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