John Horgan owes New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs a thank-you card, at the very least. Mr. Higgs’s Sept. 14 electoral victory has demonstrated it is possible to safely run – and win – a provincial election during the global pandemic.
Mr. Horgan, who has led British Columbia’s minority government for the NDP for more than three years, called a snap election just days after the ballots were counted in New Brunswick. He hopes to secure a majority that he says will provide more stable government during the pandemic.
The New Brunswick election was a daring experiment that offers a template for other provinces that will go to the polls this fall. And the results show that the mechanics can work – voters can be ushered through the ballot box safely. Yet, there are troubling questions about how voters engage in the electoral process in an era of campaigning at a distance.
There was skepticism in New Brunswick in August when Mr. Higgs, the Progressive Conservative Leader, set in motion the country’s first pandemic election. His political opponents said he was putting voters' health at risk in a naked bid to gain more political power.
But New Brunswick’s election officials adapted to the circumstances and offered voters alternatives that would reduce lines at polling stations on election day.
In response, New Brunswick voters embraced mail-in voting and broke records for advance polling. They donned their masks and lined up, two metres apart, to cast their ballots under the watch of election officials armed with face shields and hand sanitizer.
The shadow of COVID-19 did not scare off voters. “Turnout was virtually identical to 2018, so I’m pleased with that,” New Brunswick’s chief electoral officer, Kim Poffenroth, said in an interview. “We really consider that a win for Elections New Brunswick.”
It was also a win for Mr. Higgs, who succeeded in convincing voters to trade the instability of a minority government for the certainty of a majority.
But the pandemic’s progress this fall will play a large and unpredictable role in the B.C. campaign.
The province’s opposition parties say Mr. Horgan’s grasp for greater power has put voters in danger of exposure to COVID-19. They say New Brunswick was far safer because it has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases in the country.
B.C.’s numbers are climbing, although the rate of active cases remains lower than the Canadian average. But what happens in the coming weeks, now that students are back in school and flu season is around the corner, could change the picture – and the public mood.
“In B.C., the issue might be more volatile,” said Mitchell Hammond, a professor of history at the University of B.C. Dr. Hammond specializes in the study of epidemics. “With New Brunswick, my sense is that the pandemic tended to nudge people in the direction of stability.”
Mr. Horgan has a reserve of goodwill from his government’s early response to the pandemic, he said. Will voters still feel that way by October? "That might be shifting, as case counts in the province reached the levels they were at in the spring.”
However voters are feeling about their choices, it’s up to the non-partisan election officials to ensure that voters can safely take part in the election.
The key, Ms. Poffenroth said, was to take the focus off of election day. That’s the one takeaway she shared with B.C.'s chief electoral officer, Anton Boegman. “I didn’t have that much advice to give, but we were discussing the shift away from voting on election day and really spreading out the voter turnout across the entire election period,” she said. "It was a significant change and a significant impact on operations, as well.”
Mr. Boegman says B.C. is ready. “I’m confident that with our safe voting plans in place, this election can be held safely during this pandemic,” he told a news conference Sept. 22. “Voting in person will be different from past elections, but the differences will be familiar to us at this stage.”
Expect physical distancing, hand sanitizer stations, capacity limits and protective barriers. But also, as in New Brunswick, there will be more opportunities to vote in advance polls and a significant push to take advantage of mail-in voting.
“Casting your vote will be like getting a takeout coffee, or picking up milk and eggs from the grocery store, in terms of the safety protocols and time spent," he said.
The pandemic also led to significant changes in political campaigning. The New Brunswick race featured no big political rallies. Mr. Higgs campaigned wearing a full face shield. Candidates couldn’t glad-hand with voters, and knocking on doors had to be approached tentatively, to ensure the person answering the door felt comfortable with a stranger on their doorstep.
“It made it really awkward and difficult to get your message out,” said Matt Garnett, a veteran campaign worker, who did advance work for New Brunswick’s Liberal leader, Kevin Vickers.
Campaign organizers in B.C. are also abandoning traditional high-energy public events in favour of remote, virtual voter contact in the pandemic.
But Mr. Garnett cautioned that connecting remotely with undecided voters is difficult. And he worries that voter engagement suffered.
“I don’t know what it was that they would have seen over the course of 28 days that would have made them decide, ‘This is how I’m voting,'” he said. “It just seems like there was a major democratic deficit.”
Donald Wright, political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, agreed the campaign was not high on engagement.
“It was easy to forget that there was an election on,” he said.
That might have worked in Mr. Higgs’s favour: It was a low-key campaign that amounted to a referendum on his pandemic leadership. Like Mr. Horgan, the New Brunswick Premier called the election at a time of his choosing, when his approval ratings were high because he was seen to have handled the pandemic well.
Mr. Horgan has struggled, in the early days of this campaign, to explain why he has called an election at all. Prof. Wright said Mr. Higgs faced similar questions: If voters approved of the government’s performance in a minority situation, what was the case to be made for going to the polls at all?
“It was a question you could never really answer," Prof. Wright said. “Mr. Higgs campaigned on his record, telling voters he had, with a minority government, steered the province through the worst of the pandemic. But then he said he needed a majority so that he could steer the province through the worst of the pandemic that is yet to come.”
Mr. Horgan no doubt observed that in New Brunswick, this contradictory notion didn’t cost Mr. Higgs the election.
“Voters,” Prof. Wright concluded, “weren’t splitting the hairs.”
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