The winner of the Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA byelection should be known by day’s end Wednesday but some candidates say the mail-in voting process has been overly challenging.
Six candidates are vying for the seat, which became vacant when Steve Norn was expelled from the NWT Legislative Assembly on Nov. 23.
Along with Norn trying to reclaim, Ernest Betsina, Richard Edjericon, Mary Rose Sundberg, Nadine Delorme and Clinton Unka are in the running.
Mail-in vote ballots were being taken up until the deadline of Feb. 8 at 8 p.m.
There are 891 registered electors in the district, but the number of cast or discarded ballots won’t be known until Feb. 9.
Betsina said he found the campaign difficult for several reasons, including that public health restrictions prevented him from visiting Fort Resolution as the community was not allowing anybody in due to Covid-19.
Additionally, not all constituents have internet access — let alone phones or computers — where much information is located. He has found some voters slow to digest all of the information, as well.
“I am finding out that reading and writing is a challenge for some constituents in the communities, especially the Elders,” said Betsina. “I’m getting questions on how they fill out the ballots, because they don’t understand it. I tell them to ask their children to explain it.
“So it really, really is challenging.”
Norn said he has found much of the campaign confusing. He has been emphasizing the importance that people use the drop boxes available in the communities rather than mail ballots through Canada Post.
“I have been getting a lot of feedback on the mail-in ballots that this was kind of confusing,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s like for people that are not too well studied, but it has been confusing for a lot of our Elders and not being able to use the traditional polling station.”
Unka also said he has received feedback on the difficulties of understanding the process.
“I did speak to a couple of constituents in the regions and a lot of it was very difficult to decipher, like when it came to what boxes you need to check off or whether you can actually hand deliver (a ballot) somewhere,” he said. “I was hearing stories of people just not even knowing how to read it. In other cases, because people were stuck at home due to Covid … people were just throwing it in their fires to use as kindling.”
Deputy chief electoral officer Charlotte Digness said that Elections NWT has acknowledged the complexities of the mail-in vote and has made extra efforts to maximize voter access.
“Elections NWT undertook several initiatives to make voting easier, in recognition that a mail-in process has more steps than an in-person poll,” she said. “All return envelopes were pre-stamped so that electors would not have to pay for postage.”
Digness said that drop boxes have been arranged in Fort Resolution, Lutsel K’e, N’dilo and Dettah so that voters did not have to rely solely on Canada Post to mail their ballots.
The election office has also hired people to work with voters to get proper information about the new voting process.
“Election workers have also been picking up ballot packages from voters who were unable to leave their homes, or who could not make it to the post office or drop box in the community,” she said.
Date extension on voter registration
Voters were given an extension to apply for an absentee ballot — up to Feb. 4 at noon instead of the original Jan. 28.
“Voters are required to sign a certificate as part of the mail-in process,” Digness said, noting that all packages include instructions on how to ensure the ballot is filled out, including the need to place it inside a secrecy envelope.
Packages also contain contact information for election workers for questions or assistance.
“Some of the instruction sheets have come back as unsigned … so we have been working with our election staff in the communities to make sure those things got signed,” she said. “Given that it’s all mail-in ballot and given that we shipped everything out through Canada Post, we just wanted to make sure that we were providing enough time for electors to apply for a (mail-in) package.”
Public health concerns
Elections NWT stated that the mail-in vote was necessary because of concerns involving Covid-19.
Several people in the communities voiced misgivings over the potential spread of the new Omicron wave, according to Digness.
“The decision to move to a mail-in-ballot-only election was done after the Omicron wave was starting to result in a high level of infections in the south, and the first case was reported in the NWT,” she said. “Election workers had expressed concerns about working an in-person poll, and communities were apprehensive about renting space for the polling places, given the uncertainty over what this variant would mean for infections and transmissibility.”