On paper, it’s a seemingly simple change. A bill that would extend voting rights in municipal elections to permanent residents in the province consists of one line.
But according to Local Government Deputy Minister Ryan Donaghy, that simplicity is deceptive.
“This is a closely watched Canadian first. These other contemplations need to be given time to consider and get it right,” he told the standing committee on law amendments Friday.
Among those other contemplations are if permanent residents would also be able to run for municipal positions, how long someone would have to be in the province before being eligible to vote and how exactly Elections New Brunswick would be able to produce a list of eligible permanent residents.
Elections NB would also have to update how it trains poll workers and likely software. With parts of the province going to the polls this fall to elect new mayors and councils for more than 70 new and amalgamated municipal entities, there’s not enough time to sort all that out.
“Elections NB informs us that it would not be possible, if this were to pass, to change all of that in advance of the election this fall,” Donaghy said.
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The better option, according to the department, is to wait. In fact, it’s already begun studying some of these issues.
As part of the white paper on municipal reform released last year, a commitment to consult with stakeholders on voting rights was made, with recommendations to come in 2024. That would allow enough time for Elections NB to prepare for the changes ahead of the next provincewide local government election in 2026.
That timeline is the cause of some frustration for Liberal MLA Keith Chiasson, who tabled the bill, calling it “the will of the government.” Chiasson tabled the bill in December of 2020, seeking unanimous consent to expedite the bill in order to have the change in place for the 2021 local government elections. That attempt failed and the bill next saw debate in the spring of 2021 when the government opted to punt it to the law amendments committee for further study.
Chiasson pointed out that by the time the elections take place this fall, it will have been close to two years since he first introduced the legislation, which is the approximate timeline the department recommended to implement the changes.
PC MLA Jeff Carr, who is himself a former local government minister, said the change is something the government supports in principle, even if the change can’t be made immediately.
“We’re all progressive enough in our thinking to support what Mr. Chiasson has brought forward,” he said. “I think there’s probably a way (this) can be figured out, but obviously not for this election. There’s just no way.
“I’m not sure I could pick which date in the future would be a proper date other than 2026.”
The proposal itself is not new. In 2017 the Commission on Electoral Reform recommended that permanent residents be allowed to vote in both municipal and provincial elections. It also suggested that the voting age be lowered to 16.
Then-premier Brian Gallant said the question of lowering the voting age would be put to a referendum in the 2020 municipal elections, but stopped short of extending voting rights to permanent residents because making the change provincially would require changing the constitution.
No such change would be required for municipal elections, which are entirely the domain of provincial governments.
Extending voting rights to permanent residents has been supported by the New Brunswick Multicultural Council and some municipal organizations. It’s been argued that the change could boost immigration to the province as well as the retention of newcomers.
A decision on whether or not to proceed with the bill was made by the committee in camera and will be announced on the floor of the legislature next week.