New Brunswick

Behind the scenes preparations underway to navigate risks of possible snap election

New Brunswick's four main political parties are making plans for how to run provincial election campaigns during a pandemic — and accusations are already flying that the Progressive Conservatives would put people at risk if they decided to go to the polls.

Political parties, provincial elections agency preparing for vote amid COVID-19 pandemic

The possibility of a snap election being called this year remains, leading political parties and the provincial elections agency to prepare for a vote during the pandemic. (CBC)

New Brunswick's four main political parties are making plans for how to run provincial election campaigns during a pandemic — and accusations are already flying that the Progressive Conservatives would put people at risk if they decided to go to the polls.

If Premier Blaine Higgs called a snap election in the coming months, the usual goal of trying to generate big, enthusiastic crowds of supporters would take a back seat to respecting COVID-19 guidelines. 

Progressive Conservative party executive director Andrea Johnson says her goal is to "keep it as normal as usual while making sure we're following protocol and keeping everyone safe."

Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee, one of the party's two campaign co-chairs, says "it's definitely a concern to be able to have a normal campaign with our normal events that we take part in during a campaign."

Liberal MLA Rob McKee says it will be risky trying to run a regular campaign. (CBC)

Election campaigns are all about crowds: jammed rallies, platform announcements and riding nominations help create an image of enthusiasm and momentum.

But that may not be possible in an era of physical distancing.

Nomination conventions coming soon

The PCs have scheduled five nominating conventions for Aug. 8, all for incumbent MLAs who plan to run again.

Three of them, for the ridings of Rothesay, Quispamsis and Hampton, will be held at a joint meeting inside at a church hall in Quispamsis.

The two others, for Fredericton West-Hanwell and Oromocto-Lincoln-Fredericton, will also take place inside, in a Fredericton hotel meeting room. 

McKee said that's risky and it contradicts PC government decisions to postpone municipal elections due to the pandemic and put off a promised "health summit" on hospital reforms.

"To think you're going to have three ridings at one time, respecting social distancing all in the one room, I think that's going to be very hard to achieve," McKee said.

"It just flies in the face of what we've had to go through over the last few months, to think they're going to put people at risk." 

The latest guidelines allow indoor gatherings of 50 or more people, as long as organizers enforce distancing and write down contact information to allow tracing if there's an infection.

"The cap has been lifted for indoor gatherings, providing the six feet physical distancing can be maintained, so we're going to trust that," Johnson said. "If the team is saying that it's safe to do so, we're going to trust it."

The floors will be marked with arrows, for spacing and masks will be required. If too many people turn up — about half the normal maximum occupancy for a space, she said — some will be turned away.

Snap election could produce low turnout

Green Party Leader David Coon said his party hasn't given much thought to campaign logistics "because we couldn't quite imagine that the premier would call an election in the midst of a state of emergency, during a pandemic." 

He suspects people will be nervous about participating in events and going to polling stations. "If the voter turnout is low, you don't have a great democratic process," he said.

Green Party Leader David Coon says holding an election amid the risk of COVID-19 could produce low voter turnout. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

Coon also predicts an election call would torpedo the spirit of co-operation generated by the all-party COVID-19 committee that he and other leaders have sat on.

"That would all go out the window with a general election. I think it would cause a lot of anxiety and potentially a big backlash against the premier and his party."

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin could not be reached to talk about his party's campaign planning.

'Mixed feelings'

Higgs said Tuesday he was still undecided about whether to call a general election or go ahead with two required by-elections and a third one to fill another pending vacancy in the legislature. 

He acknowledged many New Brunswickers may not want to go to the polls. "There's a mixed feelings because many people would say, 'Is there a need? Is there a bigger concern around the health risks?'"

Higgs lacks a majority in the legislature and the pending retirement of PC MLA Bruce Northrup will make it even harder for the government to win confidence votes and pass legislation.

Premier Blaine Higgs speaks to reporters on Tuesday. He said he's 'not hankering for an election.' (CBC News)

As of Tuesday, New Brunswick had five active cases of COVID-19. Some other Canadian provinces have seen worrisome upticks in their numbers recently.

McKee said the Liberals have heard that a campaign could begin as early as the first week of August, which would put election day in early September.

A summer campaign would allow more outdoor events, which reduce the risk of infection. Johnston said the party will treat the five indoor nominations on Aug. 8 as dry runs.

Contested nominations, in which more than one person seeks to run for the party and must get supporters out to vote, could take place outdoors, she said.

Virtual nominations

The Liberals are planning virtual nomination meetings if they are uncontested, and are looking at hybrid meetings if a nomination is contested.

Speeches would be online and, to avoid crowds, party members could vote at an all-day polling station, rather than during a set time at a meeting.

Johnson said the PCs have not decided whether Higgs will do a campaign bus tour, but, if it happens, it won't have the usual number of party volunteers and journalists on board. McKee said the Liberals haven't decided on a bus, either.

Another campaign tradition, candidates knocking on doors to ask voters for their support, may also be off the table in a 2020 election.

Johnson calls it a "tricky" challenge. "As a politician, you want to be able to make that personal connection, and a lot of times that happens at the door."

The party may instead encourage meet-and-greet sessions in public spaces where it's easier to keep at a distance.

Elections NB preparations 

For election day itself and advance voting, Elections New Brunswick is stockpiling supplies and hiring extra staff so voting can take place safely if an election is called.

Spokesperson Paul Harpelle said supplies include 500,000 disposable masks in case voters need them, more than 4,000 N95 masks and face screens for poll workers, 1,500 bottles of hand sanitizer and 500 rolls of tape for marking two-metre spacing on floors.

"We are also planning a significant campaign promoting the efforts that Elections New Brunswick is taking to make voting safe and to encourage people to take advantage of early voting opportunities at the returning offices, and or advance polls," he said.

A voter casts a ballot in the 2016 municipal election. Elections New Brunswick has begun taking steps to hold an election during the pandemic. (Elections New Brunswick/Facebook)

McKee said the Liberals oppose an early election and are promising to not bring down the government in the legislature this year. 

If Higgs doesn't call an election before Sept. 15, the legislature is scheduled to wrap up the current session by passing some remaining bills. 

A new session would begin later in the fall. By law, two by-elections in Saint Croix and Shediac Bay-Dieppe must be held at least 30 days before that. 

Higgs said Tuesday they will happen by Oct. 15.

Another factor that complicates the timing is the requirement that an independent commission be set up by September to redraw electoral boundaries. By next spring, a new riding map would force parties to start candidate nominations all over again.

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