The House

New Brunswick prepares for Canada's first pandemic election

People across Canada are closely watching the contest to elect New Brunswick’s next premier — an event that could become a "canary in the coalmine" for pandemic elections.

Top election official recommends early, off-peak voting and mask-wearing

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs called a provincial election Monday, which is set to become the first major electoral contest in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

Organizers across Canada are closely watching the contest to elect New Brunswick's next premier — an event that could become a "canary in the coalmine" for pandemic elections. 

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, New Brunswick's chief electoral officer, Kimberly Poffenroth, said that over the past few weeks, she has heard from all of her counterparts across the country to discuss the ongoing campaign in her province and what they might do if faced with a similar situation.

"There are certainly other jurisdictions that are anticipating that they will be holding an election sometime soon, so they're all very interested in what we're doing," Poffenroth told host Chris Hall.

The head of the organization in charge of running the first major election in Canada during the pandemic talks about the challenges of hiring workers, keeping staff and voters safe and what might happen if the COVID-19 pandemic takes a turn for the worse in New Brunswick.

New Brunswick's current premier, Progressive Conservative Blaine Higgs, called an election Monday after marathon negotiations aimed at avoiding a contest failed last week. Election day is Sept.14, making it the first major vote to be held in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials and voters in Saskatchewan may be especially interested in how the campaign shakes out, given that the Prairie province is set to hold its own election in late October.

How the vulnerable can vote

New Brunswick has just a handful of active coronavirus cases, but the prospect of an election has still raised significant concerns about how to vote safely.

One worry shared across the country, Poffenroth said, is how to improve access to polling stations for some of the province's most vulnerable, such as those living in assisted care homes or acute care hospitals. 

Under typical circumstances, Elections New Brunswick would set up additional polls right in the facilities themselves.

But due to COVID-19 restrictions, the electoral agency has tweaked its mail-in ballot process so that it can be used to serve those who would normally require special polling locations.

WATCH | N.B. premier calls election during the COVID-19 pandemic

N.B. premier calls election during pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 2:00
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has called an election that he says will be unlike any other because of COVID-19, and voters aren’t keen to head to the polls during a pandemic.

Boosted mail-in voting

The agency is gearing up for an increase in mail-in voting overall, Poffenroth said, noting it had requested many more supplies than normal and will be paying the return postage for the ballots.

She said she had confidence in the security of the mail-in ballots — a concern expressed by U.S. President Donald Trump about similar moves to expand voting by mail in parts of his country.

Poffenroth said her primary challenge in the coming weeks is finding enough staff to run polling locations during the campaign. Electoral agencies often have a difficult time hiring enough poll workers in normal circumstances and the kinds of people who often make up the bulk of workers, like seniors, are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

The agency will also need to hire more staff than usual, including workers responsible for cleaning surfaces and offering masks and hand sanitizer to voters.

An election deferred?

On top of those challenges, there's also the question of what might happen if the COVID-19 situation in New Brunswick — which has seen the second-lowest caseload of any province — takes a turn for the worse.

Higgs said Wednesday that he obtained a legal opinion from the province's attorney general that would allow the government to call off the election if a sudden outbreak of the virus should occur.

Poffenroth said she didn't know if such a power existed under the province's Emergency Measures Act, but added that she did not have the ability to postpone an election.

Instead, the focus will be on encouraging electors that voting will be safe, no matter the severity of the pandemic. So far, safety plans for workers have been approved by Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health.

Poffenroth's advice? Take advantage of early voting days and the ability to vote at returning offices wear a mask and vote at off-peak times if you can — or use a mail-in ballot if you prefer.

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