New Brunswick

Voting reform ideas put forward by Liberals

A consultation process on overhauling the province's electoral system is being launched by Premier Brian Gallant's Liberal government in time for the 2018 election.

Lower voting age, online voting, preferential ballots, proportional representation up for discussion

Government House Leader Victor Boudreau thinks New Brunswickers are going to want to talk about changing the electoral process (CBC)

A consultation process on overhauling the province's electoral system is being launched by Premier Brian Gallant's Liberal government in time for the 2018 election.

The Liberals tabled a 49-page discussion paper in the legislature Tuesday, hoping it will serve as a guide for a committee of MLAs that it plans to appoint later this week.

The document includes ideas such as online voting, lowering the voting age to 16 years of age from its current 18 years, and changing the way MLAs are elected, including options such as a preferential ballot or a proportional-representation system.

But the opposition Progressive Conservatives say they're wary of even taking part in the discussion because they fear the Liberals want a voting system that will work in their favour.

Progressive Conservative Leader Bruce Fitch is skeptical about a Liberal discussion paper looking at possible changes to New Brunswick's electoral system. (CBC)
"If they go and say 'We want to change the way people vote,' you'll be darn tootin,' I bet you it's going to favour the Liberals," PC Leader Bruce Fitch said.

"If you're asking us to participate in an exercise that could favour Liberal governments from here to whenever, we want to make sure that we don't get branded as an opposition that's co-operating on everything they're moving forward."

Different systems possible

Alternate voting systems are meant to address the problem of a party winning a majority of seats while not winning a majority of the popular vote, a common occurrence in New Brunswick's British-style, "first-past-the-post" system.

In a preferential ballot, voters rank candidates, and those with the least votes are dropped, with fourth-, third-, and second-choice votes reallocated until one candidate has 50 per cent of the vote.

In proportional representation, parties are awarded the same percentage of seats as the popular vote they received.

The discussion paper points out there are variations of each system but devotes more attention to the preferential ballot than to proportional representation.

We haven't even had a copy yet.- Bruce Fitch, PC leader

​Fitch wouldn't rule out PC MLAs being part of the committee.

"We're going to look at this discussion paper," he said. "We haven't even had a copy yet."

Deputy Government House Leader Victor Boudreau says the only way for the PCs to influence the process is to take part.

"I would obviously encourage them to participate," he said. "This is I think something that New Brunswickers are going to want to talk about."

The move comes as Prince Edward Island prepares for a referendum on electoral reform and as the Trudeau government in Ottawa begins consultations on changing the voting system.

Conservative concerns

Fitch, echoing the same concerns as the federal Conservative opposition in Ottawa, says any new voting system must go to a referendum for public approval.

Boudreau says that's another argument the PCs can make if they agree to join the committee.

Green Party Leader David Coon introduced a bill to lower the voting age to 16, but it died after second reading in 2015. (CBC)
Boudreau says he hopes to see any changes in place before the next election in September 2018.

Green Leader David Coon, a supporter of electoral reform who introduced a bill to lower the voting age to 16, says he's not sure the reforms can be in place that quickly.

Coon also says there has to be a referendum.

"When it comes to changing your electoral system, that's something that people have a right to vote on," he says.

2005 report shelved

In 2005, a commission on legislative democracy appointed by Bernard Lord's PC government released a report recommending several reforms, including the creation of a mixed-member proportional voting system.

That system would have combined some MLAs elected proportionally and some in traditional ridings. But the Liberal government in 2006 didn't act on the recommendation.

Other options in the discussion paper include changing the province's fixed-date election law, moving to five-year terms under that law, changing limits on party donations, and letting non-citizen permanent residents who live in New Brunswick vote in provincial elections.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.


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