There will be a lot more eyes from away watching Monday as New Brunswickers head to the polls for Canada’s first major election during the coronavirus pandemic.
The province is serving as a testing ground for pandemic politics. Can a leader leverage a well-handled public health crisis into success at the polls? Or will voters punish the politician who sent them to the voting booth at a time of COVID-19 anxiety? And, most importantly, can such an election be carried out safely?
The answers to these questions — some of which may not be clear until weeks after Monday’s vote — could open or shut the door for others weighing the risk and the benefits of a coronavirus campaign.
Less than two years after forming a precarious minority government, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs called a snap election on Aug. 17, looking, observers said, to take advantage of his Progressive Conservatives’ largely successful handling of the coronavirus crisis and win a majority government.
He’s not the only one in a position to do so. In B.C., Premier John Horgan, also leading a minority government, and also with soaring approval ratings attributed largely to his handling of the coronavirus crisis, has publicly mused about calling an election. At the federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government, which is also enjoying a level of COVID-related popularity — WE Charity scandal notwithstanding — is also expected to be monitoring the results of the New Brunswick election ahead of a Throne speech later this month.
The coronavirus case load is, notably, significantly lower in Atlantic Canada than in some other parts of the country. As of Friday, New Brunswick had only two active cases and had seen only two deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
Still, if Higgs’ gamble pays off and he gets his majority, light bulbs could well go on over the heads of political strategists across the country.
At Elections NB, Chief Electoral Officer Kim Poffenroth has been preparing for a snap election since the minority government was formed in 2018. Since the August call for election, her team has shifted into high gear.
They are tasked with smoothly running an election under the kind of conditions that no one in this country has had to face before.
Small wonder, then, that Poffenroth has been getting emails from her counterparts in other electoral offices, wishing her luck.
The October 2018 election cost New Brunswick $ 12.3 million to run. This one will cost an extra $ 1 million in personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and staffing costs for extra workers.
Saskatchewan faces a legally mandated election in October, and the Election SK’s CEO Michael Boda will have eyes on Poffenroth’s crew for hints of what’s to come.
For Saskatchewan, it cost $ 24 million to run the province’s previous election. Increased costs for the upcoming vote haven’t been tabulated yet, but Elections SK has taken on 17,000 electoral workers, up from its previous 13,000.
“A lot depends on just how smoothly the election goes,” said Jack Cunningham, program director at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
“It might make the electorate go into sort of a surly mood if their conclusion is: ‘Well we had a New Brunswick election and it was a real dog’s breakfast because it was undertaken under pandemic conditions.’ People might very well decide, ‘We’re not crazy about going to the polls federally or in another province.’ And who else would they take out irritation on but the party in power?”
So far, Elections NB’s plans have been going smoothly. In the first two days of advance voting, for example, nearly 133,000 New Brunswickers cast ballots. That compares to nearly 88,000 over the same period in 2018, a difference of close to 45,000 votes.
Most of the extra work put in by Elections NB is to ward off the spread of coronavirus as people cluster to vote.
A spike in cases would be a severe disincentive to anyone in the rest of Canada thinking of calling a snap election. But the verdict on how well the province does on that score that won’t be in until well after the polls close.
“If there was an increase in transmission associated with the election, we’d expect it to take a couple of weeks before we’d start seeing those cases and making the link back to the election,” said epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
“This is similar to what we saw with the phased reopenings, and with events, like the Black Lives Matter protests and political rallies in the U.S. — we knew that there was a risk of seeing increases in cases, but it took a few weeks to see the effect or lack of effect. That’s because it takes time for people who do get infected to develop signs and symptoms of infection, and to seek testing and get diagnosed.”
Logistics aside, what politicians also want to see is the results of Higgs’ wager.
“There’s two areas I’m really watching,” said David Coletto. He’s the CEO of polling and research firm Abacus Data.
“First, is the logistics of the election itself. How smoothly does it go? Is there any spike in infections because of people gathering to vote at polling booths?”
Related to that, he says, is whether the people of New Brunswick show a willingness to come out and vote, whether on election day or in advance polls. That, he says, is an indicator of how enthusiastic — or not — the population is about an election.
Then there’s how voters react at the polls to being asked to participate in an election during a pandemic when one is not absolutely needed.
“If the incumbents win, that will be a signal to (other) incumbents that you can risk going to the polls, and not necessarily have a backlash from voters who may perceive the election to be unnecessary,” he said.
A recent poll by Narrative Research suggests that Canadians are moderately satisfied with their governments’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis, more so at the provincial level than at the federal level. But those satisfaction numbers — with the exception of Quebec — have been on a downward slide since May, so there may be a limited window of opportunity for government leaders to take advantage of that popularity.
When Higgs dissolved the New Brunswick legislature, his PC party held 20 seats. Liberal MLAs held 20 seats also, with the Green Party and the People’s Alliance holding three seats each. Two seats were vacant.
While health care and education have dominated local conversation during the campaign, much has been made by the opposition of what is perceived to be the premier’s politcal opportunism. According to Narrative’s research, Premier Higgs’ approval numbers took a hit right after he announced the election. But while his party’s numbers have been trending downward since then, most polls show it maintaining a slight lead over its nearest challenger, the Liberals.
If the Liberals — led by former Irish ambassador and former House of Commons sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers — were to win a majority or minority of seats, it may be seen as a demonstration of the risk of a backlash for incumbents trying to take advantage of their pandemic popularity boost. If Higgs wins a majority government, it could encourage others who are thinking of taking the same gamble.
But if Higgs comes back with a minority government, as he had before, all bets are off; and scrutiny will turn, locally, at least, to which of the smaller parties — the Greens, the NDP and the People’s Alliance — have enhanced or diminished their standing.
“The assumption may be tempting to make that people will reward popular governments for their handling of the pandemic situation,” said Jack Cunningham of U of T.
“If the New Brunswick results suggest otherwise, that could also deter people like Trudeau or Horgan from going to the polls. Although my own guess, for what it’s worth is that, at least at the federal level, nobody really wants an election.
“I will be more surprised than not if, in fact, we end up going to the polls this fall.”