Pandemic election rules needed immediately in N.B., MLAs are told

·3 min read
The recent disruption of Newfoundland and Labrador's election because of rising COVID-19 cases should be a warning to New Brunswick, says Kim Poffenroth, the chief electoral officer.
The recent disruption of Newfoundland and Labrador's election because of rising COVID-19 cases should be a warning to New Brunswick, says Kim Poffenroth, the chief electoral officer.

(Roger Cosman, CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick's chief electoral officer told MLAs Friday that the province does not have clear rules about how to deal with a flare-up of the COVID-19 pandemic during upcoming municipal elections, and it needs to adopt some right away.

"We feel we have the appropriate procedures in place to conduct an election in the orange or even the red phase of recovery," Kim Poffenroth said of the elections coming up in May.

"However, if the province or a portion of the province were in a complete lockdown, suspension of the election in a particular zone is likely the best alternative, but there is still no authority in myself to do that."

Poffenroth said her office has been working to improve mail-in voting and introduce voting by phone to cope with pandemic issues but said neither of those would allow an election in a locked-down health zone to proceed because election workers would be locked down as well.

"Would anyone even show up to work?" Poffenroth asked during her appearance before a committee of the legislature.

"My opinion is that if you can't do any in-person voting at all then the best option is to suspend voting until there is the option of in-person voting."

Provincewide elections are scheduled for May 10 to elect mayors and councils in 104 New Brunswick municipalities and representatives on local education and health bodies. They were originally scheduled for last May but were postponed for a year during the first pandemic wave.

This month, a major COVID-19 outbreak in Newfoundland and Labrador during its provincial election has caused political turmoil, delays and patchwork fixes in that province that Poffenroth said should be a warning to New Brunswick, especially with new strains of the virus circulating.

"With this new variant of the virus that is present in the province now — and we saw the impact it had on the provincial election in Newfoundland — consideration has to be given to what would occur if the province or a portion of the province were to go into a lockdown situation during the election period," she said.

"I don't have the authority to suspend or change that election date. I think there has to be a legislated amendment that gives very clear direction as to what would happen if there is a lockdown."

Poffenroth said health zones not in lockdown could continue with elections if an outbreak was limited to one area, but publishing results likely would have to be delayed everywhere since residents living temporarily in one zone have the right to vote in another.

Announcing results in some areas of the province when even a few voters eligible to cast ballots are out of town for school or work and unable to vote in a lockdown would be unfair, she said.

A record number of New Brunswick residents voted by mail in last fall's provincial election and MLAs were told changes have been implemented to make that an easier option for others.

Voters line up to vote outside Exhibition Stadium in Fredericton during advance voting for the New Brunswick provincial election in September.
Voters line up to vote outside Exhibition Stadium in Fredericton during advance voting for the New Brunswick provincial election in September.

Voters line up to vote outside Exhibition Stadium in Fredericton during advance voting for the New Brunswick provincial election in September.

Voters will no longer have to print out their own request forms to sign and send in for a ballot, a problem in the provincial election for those who did not own printers.

Instead, Elections New Brunswick has implemented changes to allow signatures to be delivered to it electronically for a mail-in ballot that it can later compare to the vote that is sent back. In addition, the agency is switching from mail to couriers to speed up deliveries each way.

It is also introducing a vote-by-phone option, but Poffenroth cautioned it is not as convenient as its sounds. It involves a detailed identification process and will be used only in the rarest of cases.

"The telephone voting is an absolute last resort for individuals who cannot attend the polls, the returning office and for whatever reason the vote-by-mail is just not a practical option for them," she said.