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New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said he won’t make major reforms without first putting it to a referendum or seeking a mandate from voters in an election. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said he won’t make major reforms without first putting it to a referendum or seeking a mandate from voters in an election. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

New Brunswick commission proposes changes to the way citizens vote Add to ...

Voting at 16 years old. Giving some non-citizens the vote. A preferential ballot.

New Brunswick’s Commission on Electoral Reform issued 24 sweeping recommendations Friday to the way people vote in the province.

One commission member suggested a preferential ballot could be in place by next year’s election, but Premier Brian Gallant said he won’t make major reforms without first putting it to a referendum or seeking a mandate from voters in an election.

Under a preferential ballot, voters choose their favourite candidate and then rank their second, third, and further choices. Those choices would come into play if no one was able to get 51 per cent of the vote on the first ballot.

Commission member Bev Harrison said such a system tends to take some of the nastiness out of elections.

“This is an opportunity for candidates to be more civilized in their approach, because you are trying to get second and third ballot support in case you don’t make it the first time,” he said.

Harrison – a former MLA and speaker of the legislature – said he thinks government could put that change in place for the next provincial election in September 2018, and look at further changes later.

“The preferential ballot is doable in the immediate, and mixed-member proportional – which a lot of New Brunswickers certainly support – is something that would have to be more incremental and tied to the redistribution of seats,” Harrison told a news conference in Fredericton.

But Gallant said such a change would need the approval of voters.

“Any government would have to have a clear mandate from the people of New Brunswick to make that type of change. A mandate could be seeked through a referendum, and it could be seeked through a political party’s platform,” Gallant said Friday.

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs agrees.

“The Official Opposition believes that any changes to our democracy must be decided democratically through a referendum or ballot question. Democratic reform has to be democratic,” he said.

Green Leader David Coon also agrees that major changes need to go to a vote, but adds he doesn’t believe a preferential ballot system is the answer.

“That’s not going to solve the problem that people have with the first-past-the-post system because it will still allow governments to form majorities when they receive a minority of votes,” he said.

Coon, who holds the only third-party seat in the legislature, said he believes a proportional representation voting system will eventually have to be adopted.

The premier said he had not yet read the report and his government would need time to examine all the recommendations, including the call for a lower voting age.

“I think it goes with a goal that many New Brunswickers have to have more people voting. There’s no doubt it would have a significant impact on the number of people able to vote, so we have to take some time to think about that and to look at how we will respond as a government,” Gallant said.

The commission spent four months gathering input.

Other recommendations include giving permanent residents who are not yet Canadian citizens the right to vote.

The commission said young New Brunswickers between the ages of 16 and 18 should be able to seek public office, but only if they have completed high school.

The report also calls for political contributions by individuals, corporations and trade unions be lowered from the current $6,000, and that political contributions from corporations and trade unions be phased out after the 2018 provincial election.

However, the commission said government should not proceed with online voting at this time.

Committee member Jason Alcorn said the entire committee was in favour of e-voting, until they heard from experts concerned about security, confidentiality and privacy.

“I think it would be irresponsible on our part to recommend moving in that direction until such time as we have assurances that we can really have a safe, secure system that ensures ballot secrecy. If we don’t have those assurances we don’t believe the time is right,” Alcorn said.

The P.E.I. government plans to hold a referendum on electoral reform in conjunction with the next election. It rejected the results of a plebiscite on the issue last year because of low voter turnout.

During the last federal campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to change the way Canadians cast their ballots in time for the 2019 election.

But the Liberal government has abandoned that idea, arguing consultations on the issue did not produce a consensus on whether to change the status quo as promised, or what should replace the current first-past-the-post voting system.

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