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

Click to play video 'Advance voting soars in New Brunswick election' Advance voting soars in New Brunswick election
ABOVE: Advance voting soars in New Brunswick election.

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

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.
“Well that was well set-up,” Higgs told reporters. “It was very well organized, very disciplined.”
Thanks to health and hygiene rules, there were no handshakes, no kissing of babies, no rallies and no community barbecues during the province’s 28-day campaign.
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.
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Higgs said the biggest difference he noticed at the polling station was the hand sanitizer and everyone wearing masks.
“This is just another example that democracy will continue. We were confident we could make this work safely,” he said.
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 stability and a majority to
govern a province initially left reeling by the pandemic.
Higgs said Monday that he’s hoping to break the string of one-term governments in the province.
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“It’s time to change that. 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.
Click to play video 'Leaders spar in 1st debate of New Brunswick election campaign' Leaders spar in 1st debate of New Brunswick election campaign
Leaders spar in 1st debate of New Brunswick election campaign
Voters exiting polling stations 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.
Lineups were reported at a few polling stations, and there was a heavy turnout during the advance polls.
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.
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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.
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“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 being led by interim leader Mackenzie Thomason. The 23-year-old is running in his third election.
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Thomason said the NDP wants medicare to cover more services, including dental work, basic eye care and basic chiropractic care.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.