New Brunswick Demonstrates How to Hold Election Amid Pandemic

Social media, amateur videos, and a focus on the leader hallmarks of first major election during pandemic
September 14, 2020 Updated: September 16, 2020

Blaine Higgs made Canadian history in New Brunswick on Sept. 14 as his Progressive Conservatives won a majority government without any candidate knocking on doors. The pandemic forced politics to be done differently, offering valuable clues for upcoming elections in Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and possibly federally.

Higgs upgraded his minority Progressive Conservative government to a majority after a 28-day campaign. The PC’s won 27 seats, the Liberals 18, the Greens three, and the People’s Alliance one.

The pandemic had a strong effect on the results. In March, Higgs formed an all-party cabinet committee to handle the COVID-19 crisis. His handling of the pandemic helped his ratings to soar. He enjoyed 61 percent approval ratings at the end of August, according to an Angus Reid poll.

Liberal leader Kevin Vickers failed to win his seat in Miramichi, losing to incumbent Michelle Conroy of the People’s Alliance. He is resigning as leader.

University of New Brunswick political science professor Paul Howe believes the pandemic hindered Vickers’ “opportunity to really get himself out there, and get people knowing him. And given the nature of New Brunswick politics, a fair bit of that would have involved being out there in public where people can see you.”

The province has had less than 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with just two deaths, and only two active cases on election day. Even so, Chris Collins of Aurora Strategy Group says the PC Party forbade its candidates from knocking on doors and those in other parties also varied in their approach.

“One of the candidates [was] putting door-knockers up but not ringing on the doors, and another candidate was going around ringing doorbells with a gavel … so they wouldn’t be touching anything,” Collins said in an interview.

The former Moncton MLA and Speaker of the New Brunswick Legislature said the situation forced candidates to use “much, much more social media, much more amateur videos that are in some cases very amusing and … trying to create exposure to themselves and to win the vote. So, Facebook advertising, Twitter feed, that type of stuff.”

He said the result was a “leader-centric campaign [where] debates and leader’s comments and things like this are much more important than a normal campaign where the actual candidate in any given riding is out trying to influence the vote. So that’s what’s fascinating.”

Howe says in recent decades campaigns have become “more and more leader-focused and media-focused in terms of how people learn about what’s happening. So it is the same thing that’s already been there, but with the pandemic it’s taken a little bit further.”

When the legislature dissolved, the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals each had 20 seats, while the Greens and People’s Alliance each had 3. Higgs attempted negotiations with the other parties to stay in power until the end of the pandemic or the fixed election date in October 2022. The Liberals left the negotiations and Higgs called the election three days later.

“The opposition parties in New Brunswick all were claiming that it was very dangerous,” Collins said. “That turned out to be a misleading argument.”

The election witnessed a record turnout at advance polls. Over 133,000 people voted prior to the election, up from 88,000 in 2018. Overall voter turnout dropped to 60 percent from 67 percent in 2018. This result, plus national surveys, suggest advance polls could also play a large factor in a federal election.

A recent nationwide poll by Angus Reid showed just 29 percent of Liberal supporters and 26 percent of NDP supporters were “completely comfortable” going to the polls, compared to 66 percent of Conservative voters and 58 percent of Bloc Quebecois supporters. Women and voters under 35 were less likely than others to feel comfortable voting, as were those who lived outside of Saskatchewan, Alberta, or Quebec.

Daniel Bernier of Earnscliffe Strategy Group says COVID-19 is changing politics, perhaps in lasting ways.

“Recruiting, leadership, and having people involved with parties is a human aspect, [as is] face-to-face. … During the pandemic, this is going through a new reality that will impact in the longer run the role of parties and how they will be structured and organized,” Bernier said in an interview.

“It could be a little bit of a representation of a vote during a pandemic because New Brunswick is the unique bilingual province … that is very industrial in the southwest and northeast is more fisheries and agriculture. And then you have Fredericton which is very bureaucratic.”