New Brunswick

Decision to postpone municipal elections looks smart next to Wisconsin

Nearly a week after holding a chaotic presidential primary in the middle of a pandemic, voters in Wisconsin were still waiting Monday for their results, as mailed-in absentee ballots had until April 13 to be received and counted. 

Wisconsin primary was held last week, but New Brunswick elections could be postponed until May 2021

Local elections and primaries went ahead in Wisconsin last week despite the threat from COVID-19 infections. (Photo: CBC News)

Nearly a week after holding a chaotic presidential primary in the middle of a pandemic, voters in Wisconsin were still waiting Monday for their results, as mailed-in absentee ballots had until April 13 to be received and counted. 

Forced by the courts to proceed, the event became a public spectacle as those who couldn't vote by mail, stood for hours at polling stations, risking exposure to the virus. It's unknown how many voters simply stayed home out of fear and were therefore disenfranchised. 

Widely criticized as a disaster, Wisconsin's struggle has not gone unnoticed by New Brunswick's chief electoral officer.

Kim Poffenroth, New Brunswick's chief electoral officer, said postponing local elections was the right thing to do. (Roger Cosman, CBC)

A full month ago, Kim Poffenroth met with a newly assembled all-party cabinet committee on COVID-19 to discuss the dangers of holding a high contact election while trying to prevent the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.

Within days of that meeting, a law was passed to postpone the May 11 local elections for as long as a year. 

"It was the right thing to do," said Poffenroth. "The health of everyone in this province is paramount at this time."

"We'll be ready to run the elections whenever the government says we're good to go again."

Don't expect a mail-in

What happened in Wisconsin has further fuelled partisan debate in the U.S. about holding November's presidential election by mail.

In New Brunswick, that kind of transition is less about politics and more about logistics. 

Poffenroth said it would be a huge undertaking to try to switch.  

People crowd Wisconsin polling stations during the pandemic. (Photo: CBC News)

"There's a lot that would go into adopting that kind of process," she said, including changes to legislation, operations and technology. 

"In New Brunswick we do have some people that vote by mail but on a very, very small scale," she said. 

Those voters must apply in writing and provide their signature in advance so their mail-in ballot can be verified.

"So we know you are who you say you are," she said. 

Wisconsin poll workers reportedly quit in droves; more than 100 municipalities lacked enough staff to run even a single polling site. (Photo: CBC News)

"But if everyone's going to vote by mail, you need to have a signature sample from every potential elector."

Poffenroth said there's nothing in motion now to make the change by May 10, 2021 — that's how long the Act Respecting Elections in 2020 says the suspended elections can wait. 

Poffenroth said there are many reasons not to rush, including protecting the perceived integrity of the electoral system.

She said voters must have confidence that any new voting method is secure, accurate and fair. 

Traditional election put on hold

For now, the plan is to put the election "back on the shelf," said Poffenroth and bring it out another day. 

That will add some expense. 

Twenty-three returning offices had been prepared to open to the public on March 23. 

They'd been hooked up to phone and internet, equipped with materials, and Elections NB had committed to three month leases. 

Those rentals and that effort will have to be repeated, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, estimated Poffenroth, who said it's still too early to give a more precise figure because some invoices had yet to come in.  

However, millions of dollars was not spent on work that didn't start. 

Voters line up to cast their ballots during last week's Wisconsin primary (Photo: CBC News)

"The budget for the local elections is between $6 million and $7 million," said Poffenroth.

"And the largest portion of the cost of any election that we run at Elections NB are the staffing costs for the casual employees that work in the returning offices and the poll workers."

"For example in 2016, 42 per cent of the cost of the local elections was attributable to the salaries of casual employees and the poll workers."

Elections NB will call staff to duty whenever a new date is set and depending on the length of the delay, some workers may receive retraining. 

In the interim, returning officers are being tasked with packing up their offices and sending materials back to the warehouse to be stored until the time is right. 

Elections NB has also frozen the release of all the television and radio ads that had been ready to roll out, as well as the mailers for every household. They'll be used later. 

Other ideas for safer voting 

Political scientist Jamie Gillies says Canada's elections from the municipal to federal level are very straight forward so a universal mail-in ballot could be administered if officials had enough time to get it right in terms of access, accuracy and security. 

Meanwhile, he says there are other possibilities to consider. 

The threat of COVID-19 didn’t stop people from getting out to vote in local elections and primaries in Wisconsin. 2:01

For example, he says polling stations could be modified to allow for drive-in voting to accommodate more distancing. 

Another option is dragging out the time allotted for voting. 

Gillies says voters could be given weeks or a month to cast their ballots, and thus avoid election day lines and polling station crowding. 

About the Author

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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