New Brunswick

Lessons learned from Canada's first pandemic election

New Brunswick's chief electoral officer says 28 days isn't enough time to throw an election together, especially not during a pandemic.

More than half of all votes were not cast on election day at a regular polling station

Chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth says 28 days isn't long enough to organize an election, particularly during a pandemic, and she plans to ask for changes to the province's legislation. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

New Brunswick's chief electoral officer hasn't had much time to contemplate all of the lessons learned from Canada's first mid-pandemic election, but one thing is pretty clear. 

Twenty-eight days isn't enough time to throw an election together, even at the best of times, said Kim Poffenroth. 

"I expect that one of those recommendations is that the legislators, our new MLAs, consider lengthening the minimum time period for an election period for an unscheduled election," said Poffenroth on Tuesday afternoon. 

Current legislation sets a maximum of 38 days and a minimum of 28.

"Without exception, the returning offices that I was able to visit during this election all said to me that 28 days is not long enough to do everything they have to do to run the election when it's an unscheduled election."

Mount A difficulties

Twenty-year-old Natalie Comfort had everything she needed to vote Monday. 

She had her driver's licence as proof of identity and her last two lease agreements as proof of residency in the riding of Memramcook-Tantramar. 

She also had her mask on and readily accepted the hand-sanitizer she was offered at the polling station in Sackville. 

But when questions started about her "ordinary residence," she was quickly told that she wouldn't be able to vote. 

She wasn't alone. 

Fourth-year Mount Allison University student Natalie Comfort had to argue for her right to vote in Memramcook-Tantramar. (Submitted by Natalie Comfort)

Mount Allison Students' Union president Jonathan Ferguson estimates that more than 100 students were initially told they weren't eligible to vote in Monday's election. He said some students made multiple trips and were repeatedly turned away. 

Some, he said, gave up in frustration and simply didn't vote. 

Poffenroth said there was an hours-long misunderstanding by poll officials in Sackville. After several phone calls, Poffenroth says the issue was resolved by about 5:30 p.m., but she doesn't know how many students may not have voted. 

According to the legislation, students from outside New Brunswick can vote in a provincial election if they are returning students —  so if they attended last year and are back again —  or, for new students, if they have lived in the riding for 40 days prior to the election. 

Going home for the summer does not disqualify returning students, said Poffenroth. 

All they have to do is be able to prove "ordinary residence" in the riding. 

The problem on Monday, explained Poffenroth, is that officials at the polling station were incorrectly applying the 40-day requirement to returning students. 

Mount Allison Students' Union president Jonathan Ferguson said dozens of students were turned away from polling stations Monday — some multiple times. (Submitted by Jonathan Ferguson)

While Comfort successfully argued her case and was able to vote, Ferguson said the ordeal for other students may have long-lasting effects. 

Young people already have lower voter turnout, and Ferguson worries that those turned away Monday may be leery to try again next time. 

"That's a mentality that could stick with you for life, right? Especially if this was your first or second time," he said.

Voter turnout

For the duration of the campaign, New Brunswickers were encouraged to take advantage of other ways to vote —  mail-in ballots, advance polls, or at returning offices —  in order to decrease congestion and crowding at the polls on election day. 

Poffenroth said voters heeded the message. 

While turnout was very close to 2018 numbers —  perhaps a bit of a surprise in the midst of a pandemic —  more than half of them did not vote in a regular polling station on election day. 

That meant long lineups and waits were averted, said Poffenroth.  

"I see it as a win for Elections New Brunswick," she said. 

But for some, especially those who had to vote early to ensure their mail-in ballots were received by election day, voting early meant making a decision before the leaders debates and while campaigns were still in full swing. 

More than half of all votes in the latest provincial election were not cast on election day at a regular polling station. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

And polling showed that voters were still changing their minds in the final weeks. Results, for example, showed an uptick in Green support at the tail end of the campaign. 

Poffenroth doesn't believe the Vote Early, Vote Safely campaign impeded the democratic process. She said several options were available to voters who had their minds made up early, but anyone who was still mulling over candidates and platforms could wait until election day to cast their ballot. 

"We made sure that electors were aware of the choices available to them. If they weren't ready to vote, then they had obviously that option of waiting," said Poffenroth. 

Out of 376,882 ballots received, roughly 63,000 of them were cast by mail, at returning offices throughout the campaign, or at long-term care facilities. Another 133,000 were cast on two advanced polling days. 

Mail-in ballots

Poffenroth said changes are needed to make mail-in ballots easier to manage. She said the method has been historically used by New Brunswickers working or studying outside the province during a provincial election. 

While exact numbers aren't yet available, Poffenroth said the increase in mail-in ballots was "exponential." 

Normally, returning offices might get half-a dozen at most, she said. This time, every riding in the province reported having hundreds. 

For now, the number of votes sent by mail is grouped in with all special ballots, but Poffenroth says the exact number will eventually be sorted out. 

She said legislation for mail-in balloting is based on traditional use and it isn't designed to handle the increased volume experience this time around. 

"So that's something we'll have to look at for future elections as to what legislative changes will be required."

However, only time will tell whether voter habits will change permanently once the pandemic has passed, said Poffenroth. 

Election debrief

Poffenroth said there are likely several more lessons to be learned from Canada's first pandemic election, but those will be discussed in the coming weeks when she meets with election officials from all 49 ridings during province-wide "post mortems," she said.

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