The Ontario Liberals are down another candidate with one week to go until voting day, making a total of three ridings with no Liberal in the running for the June 2 provincial election.

Leader Steven Del Duca said Thursday that Audrey Festeryga had withdrawn her candidacy in Chatham-Kent-Leamington.

Festeryga had stepped in after the party dropped a previous candidate in the riding who had used a homophobic slur on social media when he was a tween.

But her own candidacy was also called into question by the New Democrats, who have alleged that Festeryga was fraudulently registered with signatures gathered in support of the dropped candidate.

The NDP has shared a May 20 letter from Elections Ontario saying it is investigating the matter, and has repeatedly called for Festeryga to withdraw.

Festeryga described the NDP's tactics as “mudslinging” and “the worst kind of politics” that she said distract from real issues and discourage women from running.

“Due to the NDP's relentless personal attacks, I have made the difficult decision to withdraw as the Liberal candidate for Chatham-Kent-Leamington, in order to protect my family and my name,” she wrote in a statement. “This decision was also made based on my personal sense of morals and ethics.”

Del Duca refused to comment on the validity of the NDP's fraud accusations on Thursday and criticized the NDP and leader Andrea Horwath for “attacking” Festeryga.

“The fact that when we are all supposed to be doing more to encourage women in particular to step up and to run for elected office, that (NDP Leader) Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP would be out there attacking a woman every single day, questioning her integrity, questioning her reputation, trying to do everything they can in the most despicable way imaginable is ... appalling and unconscionable,” Del Duca said.

“I think Andrea Horwath has an awful lot to answer for, as it relates to how she has handled this situation.”

Horwath maintained that fraud is a serious issue and said Del Duca should address the situation directly.

“Pointing fingers at other people is not a sign of leadership,” she said. “He needs to take some responsibility.”

Festeryga is technically the fourth Liberal candidate to leave the race since the writ period commenced, a trend that has raised questions about the party's vetting process.

In addition to the first candidate in Chatham-Kent-Leamington, the party also dropped a candidate in Parry Sound-Muskoka after media reports described a book he published that detailed scientifically baseless views on homosexuality.

Another former Liberal candidate in Sault Ste. Marie was dropped following a media report that he participated in online discussions in which people joked about “dying of AIDS.” He told local media he did not make the comments.

Horwath suggested on Thursday that Festeryga was set up to fail by the Liberal party, and criticized Del Duca for bringing accusations of sexism into the matter.

“It's (Del Duca's) decision and his party's decisions that put her in that untenable position,” she said.

The latest Liberal candidate loss comes a week after advanced voting began in the province.

Elections Ontario said if a candidate withdraws after ballots are printed, the policy is to post a notice to voters “prominently on the wall behind the voting screens at all advance and election day polls.”

A spokeswoman said other candidates in the riding have been notified and notices have also been posted in other locations like libraries and community centres.

Advance ballots that were already cast for Festeryga will be counted as rejected.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.