Electoral reform commission invites public to join upcoming meetings

Member Constantine Passaris said the commission is calling on the public to help it recommend "new frontiers" to the provincial government regarding issues such as online voting and lowering the voting age.

Commission formed in November, tasked with assessing things like online voting and age of voting

The commission on electoral reform created in November. Pictured: Jason Alcorn, Carolyn MacKay, Minister Victor Boudreau, Gaétane Johnson, Bev Harrison, and Constantine Passaris. (GNB)

The province's electoral reform commission is looking for public input, especially from under-represented groups, in an effort to strengthen democracy in New Brunswick.

Constantine Passaris, one of five members of the commission, said they are hoping to get a lot of feedback from New Brunswickers.

"We're reaching out to them to engage them in the process because this is a very important process. Electoral reform is one of the foundations of what keeps democracy breathing and living through the centuries," he said.

Meetings, which are open to the public, are set for Jan. 4 and will continue each Monday and Wednesday of the month until Jan. 27.

Constantine Passaris, an economics professor at the University of New Brunswick, said the commission hopes to help underrepresented groups and incorporate new technology into the electoral reform. (UNB)

Passaris said the commission is expected to report its recommendations to the provincial government on March 1.

He said the commission's purpose is to make sure people are aware of what it is doing in terms of recommending "new frontiers for electoral reform" to the government, as well as how democracy can be strengthened and how more people can be engaged in the democratic process.

"We're particularly interested in under-represented groups in society, getting them engaged in the political process, looking at the transformation information technology has made available to us," he said.

What do the people want?

The commission is preparing to hear from various stakeholder groups and experts in January.

Passaris said stakeholders include women's groups, multicultural organizations, agencies regarding disability issues, younger generations, and Indigenous groups.

Experts are considered to be those who have expertise in areas such as cyber security, political participation and political party finances.

The commission invited the public to share thoughts and concerns on its website up until Nov. 30, but Passaris said that deadline is one that is "movable."

"As long as the commission will be holding its public sessions, we would like the public to continue to send in their comments," he said.

Passaris said the commission is reaching out "to make sure that all New Brunswickers are aware of this commission … and to provide an open invitation for all New Brunwickers to participate in the process because we strongly believe that this process should be inclusive and should be transparent."

Envelopes like these were sent to more than 100,000 Islanders registered to vote in the provincial plebiscite on electoral reform. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)
He said they have not yet looked at the feedback from the initial open period, but the commission has been discussing amongst itself and identifying who they want to hear from.

A referendum dealing with similar issues was dealt with via plebiscite in Prince Edward Island between October and November.

Votes indicated mixed member proportional representation was the preferred choice with over 52 per cent support on the final ballot.

However, as voter turnout was at a low 36 per cent, Premier Wade MacLauchlan said he was doubtful the results could "be said to constitute a clear expression of the will of Prince Edward Islanders."

'A mini-citizens assembly'

A flag waves in the fall breeze in front of the legislative assembly in Fredericton. (Daniel McHardie/CBC)
Passaris said the model of the New Brunswick commission on electoral reform is very different from the federal committee that released its report on Dec.1.

Rather than being a committee of House of Commons members, Passaris said New Brunswick's model is different.

"It is basically made up of citizens who expressed an interest in participating in this process and were selected by the government to form a sort of mini-citizens assembly of five people," he said.

Passaris said he believes this is a better approach because discussion will not be effected by the "element of advancing their political parties and the political ambitions."

As the democratic process evolves over time, Passaris said the democratic institutions, mechanisms and machinery have to change with it.

"We need to keep pushing the frontiers. We need to build a bigger tent so more people can come into [it] and enjoy the benefits of living in a province and a country that has an outstanding democratic record."

This isn't the first time New Brunswick has studied ways to improve its democratic institutions.

In 2005, the Commission on Legislative Democracy issued a report, which made many recommendations, including moving to a mixed member, proportional representation voting system.

Bernard Lord's Tories were defeated before the majority of those recommendations could be implemented. 

Another report was done in 2011 looking at ways to improve politics and legislative democracy.