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Voting under way as New Brunswick holds country’s first pandemic election

Some voters said they were surprised by how smoothly the voting process went

September 14, 2020  The Canadian Press

FREDERICTON — Voters in New Brunswick headed to the polls Sept. 14 after a provincial election campaign notable for the unusual steps candidates had to take to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to health and hygiene rules, there were no handshakes, no kissing of babies, no rallies and no community barbecues during the 28-day campaign.

After casting his ballot at a church hall in his riding of Quispamsis, Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs said voting went smoothly, despite COVID restrictions.

“It was very well organized, very disciplined,” the premier said. “This is just another example that democracy will continue.”

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However, there were technical glitches at some polling stations soon after they opened, which means they will be kept open past the 8 p.m. deadline.

Lineups were reported at a few polling stations, and there was a heavy turnout during the advance polls.

Some voters said they were surprised by how smoothly the voting process went, saying the only difference they noticed from previous elections was the physical distancing and use of masks.

Much of the low-key campaign was conducted on social media, though there was some door-to-door campaigning — all done at a safe distance.

On Sept. 14, Higgs — who often wore a full face shield while on the hustings — called the election only 21 months into his first term, saying his minority government needed the stability of a majority to govern a province initially left reeling by the pandemic.

“It has hurt our stability here in the province and it certainly would hurt it now at a time like this if we got into that again,” he said.

At dissolution, there were 20 Tories, 20 Liberals, three Greens, three People’s Alliance members, one Independent and two vacancies. At least 25 seats are needed for a majority in the 49-seat house. Recent polls put the Tories well ahead of their rivals.

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers cast his ballot shortly after the polls opened in Miramichi. He said the campaign had been a challenge, though he said online tools were used to get the party’s message out to the public.

During the race, Vickers frequently took aim at Higgs for calling a snap election in the middle of a pandemic, suggesting the premier was putting political opportunism ahead of public safety.

Vickers has said the province needs a growth agenda, which he said is in contrast to what he called Higgs’ unspoken plan to impose big spending cuts. The Liberal leader has also pledged to put the province’s economic development agency — Opportunity New Brunswick — “on steroids.”

Green party Leader David Coon — who in 2014 became the first Green elected to the legislature — has also accused Higgs of attempting a power grab.

At the centre of the Green platform are commitments to eliminate the use of industrial herbicide on public land, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and lower the legal voting age to 16 years.

“We have two priorities,” Coon said during the campaign. “Keeping New Brunswickers safe and secure in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to chart a path to recovery … that puts the well-being of people and communities at the heart of government decision-making, while protecting the natural environment.”

As for the People’s Alliance, led by Kris Austin, the party had agreed to prop up the Higgs government for 18 months after the 2018 election. When that deal expired, Higgs asked the other parties to keep him in power until 2022 or until the pandemic had been declared over.

When the Liberals walked away from those talks last month, Higgs called for an election.

As was the case in the 2018 election, Austin’s party focused on language issues — a hot-button topic in the officially bilingual province. Austin has said the money spent on providing bilingual services, particularly in health care, could be better spent.

The NDP, which had no seats in the legislature when the election was called, is led by interim leader Mackenzie Thomason. The 23-year-old is running in his third election.

By Kevin Bissett