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Elections N.B. recommends removing government power to appoint returning officers

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WATCH: A report from Elections New Brunswick is proposing changes to the province's Elections Act coming out of last summer's snap election. But, one of those recommendations is not new, having been recommended by the independent elections organization repeatedly. Silas Brown has more. – Jan 28, 2021

New Brunswick’s chief electoral officer has released a slate of recommendations coming from the province’s snap election last summer.

Among the recommendations are changes to the vote-by-mail system, the length of snap election campaigns, and taking the responsibility for appointing returning officers away from the government.

The latter is not a new recommendation but has yet to be acted upon despite repeated calls from the head of the province’s independent elections organization to do so.

Read more: Elections NB preparing for possibility of 2 spring elections

Chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth says it’s a matter of avoiding any perception of partisanship in the electoral process.

“Our paramount value is the fact that we are non-partisan,” Poffenroth said in an interview.

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“The simple fact that the government of the day appoints the returning officers impacts negatively on that perception of the non-partisanship.”

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As it stands, returning officers, who are responsible for running elections at the riding level, are appointed by the government after each election. Poffenroth proposes that Elections New Brunswick take over the responsibility of hiring returning officers using a merit-based process.

“New Brunswick remains one of the last jurisdictions in Canada in which the appointment of returning officers remains the purview of the government,” the report reads.

“Canada, the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, and the territories of Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and Yukon, all have the chief electoral officer appoint returning officers.”

The report notes that Elections New Brunswick received several media requests during the last election “questioning the nonpartisan role of several returning officers.”

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In September, CBC reported a dispute between the prospective Green candidate in Shediac Bay-Dieppe and the riding’s returning officer over whether she had made the deadline for filing candidate paperwork. The husband and campaign manager of the candidate relayed that the returning officer was the wife of the president of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party.

“It brought into question completely valid and justified decisions that may have been made by those returning officers, but it left a question in some people’s minds about whether there was some partisan role in those decisions being made, which really isn’t fair to those returning officers,” Poffenroth said, speaking generally about media reports from the campaign.

“In order to ensure that confidence of everyone in the electoral system that those that are responsible for running the elections, whether it’s provincially such as Elections NB or returning officers at the local riding level, to put them above any kind of question that there’s any kind of partisan consideration going into their decisions.”

Green Party Leader David Coon has voiced support for the proposed changes.

“It’s time to end the political appointment of election officers,” Coon said in a press release.

“Most people will be appalled to learn that the party in power appoints the electoral officers who run the election in their ridings. Our Chief Electoral Officer is recommending that her office take this over, and I support that.”

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People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin says that he’s long been confused by the fact that returning officer appointments are the responsibility of government and says changes are long overdue.

“Even the perception can erode the faith of citizens in terms of how fair their elections are,” Austin said.

“When you have certain policies and rules that allow for the government party to pick and choose placements, I think we’re getting into changes that need to be made to give Election New Brunswick even more independence to carry out its duties.”

Interim Liberal leader Roger Melanson says the changes are worth discussion but says the standing committee on Procedures, Privileges and Legislative Officers should be convened to allow Poffenroth to appear and answer questions about the recommendations.

“That’s why we want to have this dialogue in the committee with Elections New Brunswick’s official to completely appreciate and understand the rationale of their recommendations,”

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“I’m very open to these recommendations but I want to discuss with them first.”

Read more: New Brunswick’s chief electoral officer seeks to modernize electoral regulations

Other recommended changes to the Elections Act are to set the length of a snap election at 38 days. The election last summer was the shortest allowed under the law at 28 days, which posed some problems according to Poffenroth, including getting internet and phone services set up in a reasonable amount of time.

“We pulled it off, but it was certainly not pretty and very, very difficult on our staff,” Poffenroth said of the short snap election writ period.

“Some returning offices were almost two full weeks without internet, without a telephone and it’s very difficult to manage an election with only two weeks left.”

Read more: Chief Electoral Officer asked to appear before N.B. legislature, detail costs of a snap election

Poffenroth is also recommending changes to make it easier to apply for a mail-in ballot and to give Election New Brunswick the power to adjust voting procedures in the case of an emergency.

“In order to provide the Chief Electoral Officer with the necessary discretionary authority and flexibility to adapt the provisions of the Act to the circumstances of a declared state of emergency, the Chief Electoral Officer recommends providing clear authority in the Act to adapt or modify prescribed voting procedures or processes, as well as supporting provisions related to timelines, forms, and the duties of election officers,” reads part of the recommendation.

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It’s also suggested that pay for election workers be increased and any future increases be tied to minimum wage. The daily flat rate is currently $150, which over the course of a 13 hour day works out to less than minimum wage.

All of the recommended changes would require amendments to the Elections Act.

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