In an industrial park on the outskirts of Fredericton, the people working in two nondescript warehouses crammed high with yellow-tagged boxes, laptops and tabulation machines are waiting for a call that may be several months in coming.
This is logistics central for Kim Poffenroth, New Brunswick’s chief electoral officer.
The warehouses contain almost everything needed to run two elections — a municipal election that was originally scheduled for May 11, and a provincial election, which, with the ruling Conservative party holding a precarious minority, could happen at any point the political winds change.
“In the case of a majority government, we wouldn’t be holding a general election until October of 2022,” said Poffenroth. “Right about this fall is probably when we would have begun preparations for that election and it would have been at a much, much slower pace, as opposed to, under the minority government situation we receded quite quickly to make sure things were in place.”
But there’s something new in those warehouses — something that hasn’t been part of the usual prep material for Elections N.B. Among the boxes stacked on shelves that reach the ceiling is a new category of materials — the kind of supplies that make it possible to hold an election in the midst of a pandemic.
Pallet after pallet in the warehouses is filled with Personal Protective Equipment: boxes of masks, gloves, face shields, cleaning liquids and the ubiquitous yellow tape used to place markers for social distancing.
This is the new reality, and politicians, voters and electoral officers alike may have to adapt to a new set of circumstances that drastically change the way things have been done.
Small wonder, then, that officials have been choosing their steps carefully.
Saskatchewan, with its majority Saskatchewan Party government, is headed to the polls in October as legally scheduled. But elsewhere, as in New Brunswick, the possibility of improving political fortune has given some politicians pause for thought.
Like New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs in the East, B.C.’s Premier John Horgan in the West has drawn the ire of his opponents by musing publicly about calling an early election in the fall or spring — in his case, to shore up the fortunes of his minority NDP government.
In Newfoundland, where Premier Dwight Ball has announced he is stepping down, the province will have a new leader as of Monday, when the Liberal leadership race culminates. After that, Newfoundland law requires a general provincial election within the year.
Then of course, there’s the federal stage, where Justin Trudeau’s minority government has been singed by the WE charity scandal — and faces the prospect of a new, emboldened challenger once the federal Conservatives choose their new leader.
This is logistics central for Kim Poffenroth, New Brunswick’s chief electoral officer.
And in the background, south of the border, as coronavirus cases continue to skyrocket, Americans will head to the polls, regardless of Donald Trump’s talk of a delay, at the beginning of November.
In New Brunswick, Poffenroth at least has a head start.
When the October 2018 election returned a minority Conservative government — currently 20 Tories, 20 Liberals, three Green Party and three People’s Alliance, with two vacant slots — she had to be prepared.
Hence the two warehouses of election supplies; one dedicated primarily to the municipal election, the other on standby for a possible provincial one.
Laying in protective supplies is only one part of what it will take to run an election safely in a coronavirus world. The other part will be staffing.
Poffenroth has spent, to this point, $690,000 on PPE to supply her returning officers and their workers. She’ll spend another $250,000 in salaries on extra constables; those who will take on the roles of sanitizing the voting stations and of monitoring and enforcing social distancing.
The October 2018 election cost $12.3 million. Whenever the next one is, it’s likely to cost nearly an extra $1 million in COVID-19-specific expenses.
The pandemic means changes to the way voting spaces are set up, changes in protocol, changes in staffing and, not insignificantly, changes in the ways citizens will be encouraged to vote.
Electoral offices in both Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have begun campaigns encouraging residents to take advantage of mail-in voting, to vote early, and, on election day to choose low-traffic voting hours to avoid lineups.
“There has been a significant increase in advanced voting in the last few elections,” said Pauline Beange, a doctorate in political sciences who teaches at the University of Toronto.
“So, in a sense, almost automatically, that social distancing has already been accommodated. That amount of advanced polling automatically (facilitates) social distancing.”
Aside from the machinations of carrying out a safe election during a pandemic, there is the question of how the health crisis will shape fortunes at the ballot box, and of whether voters’ experience of the past few months will galvanize them in one direction or another.
People’s opinions on the government are likely to be swayed by their personal experiences with COVID, said Beange. If a family member or loved one suffered through an infection, that’s likely to influence their view on how the government has handled the crisis.
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But similarly, there are also those who faced the consequences of epidemic management, which will colour their perceptions.
“I know of a surgeon who said, ‘I can’t operate on a mom who has Stage 4 breast cancer, because they’re reserving capacity for COVID patients and because of COVID restrictions,” said Beange. “So personal experiences of family and friends, I think … it’s going to be an influencing factor, shall we say.”
By the same token, those who have lost jobs during the shutdown — some of whom were able to get help from CERB, some who weren’t — will have a lot to say if and when an election comes.
“But this is all hypothetical, because we’ve never gone through this,” Breange added.
Less hypothetical is this: There’s always a calculus for politicians thinking about calling a snap election. Those decisions become even more critical in the midst of a pandemic.
On the one hand, a favourable impression on their management of the coronavirus crisis could give a government a political boost.
“I would think that in provinces where there have been significant COVID incidents and where government management is perceived to be good, that could swing votes,” said Beange.
In Ontario, for example, Premier Doug Ford’s leadership and his demeanour at coronavirus briefings has surprised many who would not have previously counted themselves among his supporters.
A July poll found 68 per cent of respondents approved of the work B.C.’s Horgan has been doing during the pandemic, Global News recently reported — an increase of 17 points from the previous survey.
And in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has drawn praise from many corners, helped in no small part by comparison to the disastrous results from south of the border. Trudeau, particularly, could benefit from his surge in popularity to weather the storm of the recent WE scandal, if not to turn his minority government into a majority.
But the flip side of that is that politicians risk a significant blowback if they are perceived to be putting public health at risk for the sake of political gain.
New Brunswick premier Higgs and B.C. premier Horgan — both leading minority governments — have had little to say recently about early elections after both floated the idea earlier to widespread outrage.
“Any politician who doesn’t have a really good reason to call an election while COVID’s on is going to get punished, no question about it,” says former NDP strategist Bill Tieleman.
That rationale could be hard to find, as government and opposition parties in most of the country have largely been working together to fight the epidemic, and voters seem to like that, said Tieleman.
“That’s the problem for any government that wants an election. Nobody’s really arguing on the COVID-19 stuff. So if that’s the issue, it’s kind of hard to say, ‘We needed a free hand to deal with this, because the opposition was blocking us,’ when they’re voting for everything that you do.”
The pandemic has also, obviously, changed the way in which parties would have to campaign; this may be the first election where there’s no shaking of hands or kissing of babies.
Incumbents will benefit somewhat from name recognition, but challengers may find it much more difficult.
Conventions are out. So too are any large-scale rallies.
“Early identification of voter intention is very, very important,” said Beange. “Whether people will open their doors is questionable. Whether parties will be able to turn out campaigners who will do door-to-door (is questionable.)”
In the States, famously affable Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has had to severely curtail his in-person campaigning. In its place, his campaign has turned to Zoom calls with fundraisers, virtual town halls and pithy and pointed YouTube videos with former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Beange predicts that near-future campaigns in Canada will similarly focus more on social media than before, but beyond that, she said, nobody knows.
“What we can count on is the parties and candidates will be as strategic and innovative as they have ever been, or even more so, because the game still has not changed. The game is still: How many seats can you win?”