Elections N.B. chief calls for end to government appointment of returning officers

·3 min read

New Brunswick elections should be run by staff hired by Elections NB, not appointed by the provincial cabinet, says Kim Poffenroth, the chief electoral officer.

New Brunswick is one of only two provinces — the other is Prince Edward Island — where returning officers and election clerks are appointed by the government in power rather than hired by the chief electoral officer.

The practice can affect the public's perception of what are supposed to be independently run elections, especially if any returning officers, for instance, have connections to the political party in power, Poffenroth suggested Monday.

"My independence from government interference and influence is really the upmost importance in ensuring and maintaining public confidence," she said in an in interview with Information Morning Fredericton. She has made a similar call in the past.

Jobs take skill

The change in how election offices are staffed would also give the chief electoral office the ability to determine if applicants have the proper skills. Returning officers have to be able to manage the technology, resources, payroll and other areas of an election office, Poffenroth said.

The recommendation about hiring is one of nine Poffenroth made in a report called Post-Election Recommendations for Legislative Change. it was prepared in the wake of the fall provincial election, the first in Canada to be held during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recommendations would apply to both provincial and municipal elections, although Poffenroth said changes can't be made in time for the municipal vote this spring. Each recommendation would require changes to provincial legislation.

The report also called for an easier way for electors to vote using the mail-in-ballot system. The 2020 election saw more than 13,000 vote-by-mail packages prepared by staff because of the pandemic.

That's up from 100 to 200 requests received in previous provincial elections — typically from students studying outside New Brunswick or people temporarily working outside the province.

"It's just not designed to handle the load that we dealt with during this last election," said Poffenroth.

Elections New Brunswick would look at extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to be received and counted beyond election day, provided the ballots are postmarked no later than election day.

Last year some mail-in ballots were sent out too late for them to be returned in time to be counted in September's provincial election.

Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press

Poffenroth said mail-in-ballots are handled differently across North America, and it would take time to look at options that best suit New Brunswick.

Another recommendation calls for extending the campaign period for unscheduled elections to 38 days from 28.

"Twenty-eight days is simply not enough time to organize a modern election office when there's been no notice."

She said it took until the end of the second week of the election campaign for all returning offices to be set up with the technology needed for mail-in ballots, nomination papers and lists of electors.

Higher pay recommended

Other recommendations in Poffenroth's report include:

  • Raising wages for poll workers from the $150 they now get for a 12- to 13-hour work day, which the report says "barely exceeds" minimum wage and also puts Elections New Brunswick "precariously close to violating the Employment Standards Act."

  • Amending the Elections Act to provide the chief electoral officer with authority to take any measures necessary to protect public safety during the state of emergency, such as a public health emergency.

  • The removal of the legislative requirement for returning officers to appoint special voting officers and poll officials from lists of nominees submitted by registered political parties.

  • An elector using a write-in ballot be allowed to either write the name of the candidate they wish to vote for or the name of the registered political party they plan to vote for.

  • People waiting in line to vote at a returning office at 8 p.m. on Election Day be allowed to vote, as happens at polls.