New Brunswick

Chief electoral officer prefers byelections over general election

New Brunswick's chief electoral officer tells standing committee of the legislature that she's ready for a general election but would prefer to test new pandemic-related protocols on a smaller scale.

Kim Poffenroth says byelections are good first test of new protocols

Elections New Brunswick is preparing for upcoming byelections and the possibility of a general election. Either way, going to the polls during a pandemic will look different. (CBC)

The best contingency plan for holding an election during a pandemic is to not hold an election during a pandemic, according to Liberal MLA Roger Melanson. 

"That would be the best case scenario for everybody to stay safe and be safe and don't have to worry about their public health during a pandemic," Melanson told a standing committee of the legislature Tuesday afternoon. 

He told the hearing that New Brunswick shouldn't hold a general election in the shadow of COVID-19. 

Premier Blaine Higgs hasn't ruled out making a snap election call.

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.

At the very least, two byelections are required, with vacant seats in Saint Croix and Shediac Bay - Dieppe, and Higgs has said he isn't sure whether to call a general election or just go ahead with byelections. 

He acknowledged last month that many New Brunswickers don't want to go to the polls in a pandemic. 

Chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth told a standing committee of the legislature that she's ready for a general election but would prefer to test new pandemic-related protocols on a smaller scale. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

Kim Poffenroth, the chief electoral officer at Elections New Brunswick, said the province is ready for an election, but that she would prefer to test the new procedures around pandemic safety with a byelection rather than a full-scale provincial election. 

"It's really all about being able to test new procedures," Poffenroth told reporters after the hearing. 

"Elections New Brunswick, I think rightfully, tends to be conservative when it comes to testing new procedures. So we like to test things at a small scale before we implement them on a large scale," she said. 

Also, there are a number of things that Elections New Brunswick cannot pilot during a general election. 

One of those would change the way votes are collected. Poffenroth said she'd like to run a test of telephone voting — and that can only be done during a byelection.

"Unfortunately, I don't have any authority to pilot that kind of novel voting process at a general election," she explained. 

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

Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee said the Liberals have heard that a campaign could begin as early as this week, which would put election day in early September.

During Tuesday's standing committee on "procedure, privileges and legislative officers," several politicians voiced their opposition to holding a general election.

Moncton Liberal MLA Rob McKee said it would be “irresponsible” to call an election in a pandemic. (CBC)

McKee told the hearing that it would be "irresponsible" to call an election in a pandemic. 

He asked Poffenroth what contingency plans and safety protocols will be put in place. He also wondered what would happen if someone showed up at a polling station not wearing a mask. 

The bottom line is that masks will not be enforced, said Poffenroth.

"One's right to vote is the most basic democratic right. It's No. 3 under the Charter of Rights," she told the committee. 

Voters will be asked to wear a mask, but they will not be turned away.  

"I don't believe I have the authority, constitutionally, to do that," she said. 

The staff at polling stations won't "get into a fight with somebody and throw somebody out of a polling location because they refuse."

While there are a few more powers that Poffenroth would like to see given to Elections New Brunswick, the power to stop an election is not one of them — not even during a pandemic.

"As the chief electoral officer, I did not want the authority to determine whether an election should be paused or put on hold."

She said "some additional flexibility to deal with public health emergencies" would be helpful in a pandemic, but the decision to halt an election should rest with the Legislative Assembly. 

'Flatten the election curve'

Using a term from the pandemic lexicon, Poffenroth encouraged voters to "flatten the election curve" in an effort to reduce crowds at polling stations on election day. 

She wants people to consider voting at advanced polls or at the returning office in their riding, or by using mail-in ballots. 

And if they do vote on election day, she suggested avoiding peak voting times — on the way home from work and after supper. 

"So trying to encourage people that can get out to vote early if they have some flexibility in their work, or if they don't work, to vote at those off-peak times."

Poffenroth told the committee that Elections New Brunswick has spent more than $1 million to make voting in a pandemic safer for everyone. 

All polling staff will wear masks and/or face shields, and masks will be provided to voters who don't have their own. 

"We've spent a little over a million dollars and the largest portion of that is for masks and face shields both for our workers and voters."

She said each polling station will also have two additional COVID-related positions — a personal protection constable, who will explain the safety protocols, ask them to use hand sanitizer, and offer them a mask if they don't have one; and a roving constable, who will ensure high-touch points are properly sanitized. 

Mail-in ballots

Poffenroth hopes that more people will use mail-in ballots. 

She thinks there may be a misconception among voters that only those outside the province can use this method. 

Elections New Brunswick has ordered an increased supply of mail-in ballots and bought $19,000 worth of stamps. Normally, voters were expected to pay their own postage, but under the circumstances, Poffenroth felt it was "appropriate" for Elections New Brunswick to foot the bill. 

Opposition positions

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers has said he does not want an election this year and said his party would not force an election. 

Green Party Leader David Coon also said this isn't the right time for an election. 

People's Alliance leader Kris Austin has said he doesn't think New Brunswickers want an election.

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