New Brunswick a Litmus Test for Pandemic Elections

3 minute read

Last Monday’s vote in New Brunswick was the first time Canadians have headed to the ballot box in a COVID-19 environment. It saw the incumbent PC government rewarded with a majority, which seems to have other provincial governments considering similar moves.

When Higgs called the election in August, many considered the decision to be a major gamble. Some felt voters may punish the Premier for calling an election during difficult times, and being insensitive to the concerns New Brunswickers had around exposure to COVID-19 while lining up to vote. If it was a gamble, it certainly went in Higgs’ favour, as he converted rising popularity during the pandemic to support at the ballot box, securing a majority mandate. Once all the votes were tallied, the PC’s won 27 seats, and did so with 39.3 percent of the vote (notably, the lowest popular vote for a majority government in the Province’s history).Turnout was around 66%. 

What came into play prominently during this election was the linguistic divide in the province. The PC’s easily took the anglophone vote in the southern half of the province, representing six seats – five of which were Liberal seats in former Premier Brian Gallant’s government, and one that previously belonged to the right-leaning People’s Alliance. Conversely, Liberal support was concentrated in the francophone ridings in the province’s north, where they won all but one of sixteen available ridings (with the outlier going to the Greens). Perhaps the biggest setback for the Liberals was the loss of their Leader, Kevin Vickers, who wasn’t able to secure a seat in the Legislature last Monday. Many voters felt as though they didn’t get the chance to get to know Vickers, a major detriment running against an incumbent Premier who was viewed to handle the COVID-19 pandemic ably. 

While the PCs were popular in urban centres and amongst anglophones, the Premier acknowledged there’s work to be done with French-speaking New Brunswickers. In his victory speech, Higgs noted his party’s failings among francophones. “I will continue to be inclusive and collaborative,” he said. “North, south, urban and rural, our government to be focused on helping all regions succeed.”

The election outcome in New Brunswick has other provincial leaders considering whether or not now is the right time to head to the polls themselves. Most notably, British Columbia Premier John Horgan is said to be mulling a fall election to try and convert his minority to a majority government, while Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is set to send voters to the ballot box this fall based on a fixed election date. Federal leaders have also taken notice of the outcome; some Liberals may be tempted to press for a majority under the current circumstances, while the Conservatives may feel emboldened by a majority conservative government taking hold in Atlantic Canada for the first time in several years. 

The New Brunswick election experience shows that a party can campaign safely during a pandemic. In order to pull the vote, parties relied on volunteers getting on the phones and making calls because canvassing door to door was not a viable option. Social media and political ads were another component of the campaign that got a boost because of the pandemic. Virtual communications have been on the uptick for sometime, and it was arguably more important than ever in the absence of in-person events, rallies and more. 

Another takeaway is that voters did not revolt against the idea of an election during the pandemic; in the end, voter turnout was roughly the same as last time in New Brunswick. 

While things worked out well for Premier Higgs, COVID-19 has not had the same resurgence in New Brunswick that it has had in major provinces like British Columbia, which may change the calculation for Horgan and others. 

If COVID-19 cases continue to climb and in the absence of a vaccine, the lessons learned from New Brunswick’s election may be just as applicable next spring as they were this fall.

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