The province has completed the first stage of its electoral reform journey. Earlier this month, an independent commission submitted a list of recommendations for reform. The recommendations, under the title A Pathway To An Inclusive Democracy, are being given careful consideration by the provincial Liberal government.
The electoral reform recommendations seek to build a bigger democratic tent and populate it with under-represented New Brunswickers. The commission’s deliberations were guided by the 21st century maxim: “If it ain’t broke, improve it.”
After a failed attempt to constitute a select committee of the legislature, the provincial government issued a public call for applications from interested citizens. In due course, the government announced a five-member Commission on Electoral Reform. The commissioners brought to the table a diversity of life experiences, professions and linguistic affiliations.
In effect, the commission took the form of a mini citizens assembly. It hit the ground running, consulting widely with members of the public, stakeholders, topic experts, community organizations, multicultural associations, youth councils, student advocates, under-represented groups and provincial political parties.
The commission’s deliberations were driven by one overarching objective: to strengthen New Brunswick’s democracy and make it more inclusive.
The 23 recommendations agreed upon by all five commissioners cover a wide range of electoral reform issues. Some are precedent setting, more are visionary and others offer an incremental improvement over the status quo. All have a defined time line for their implementation.
The commission developed its recommendations not as stand-alone entities but as clusters and ecosystems. In this manner, a single theme was addressed from different angles, perspectives and time lines. And it was recognized that a successful outcome for some recommendations was contingent upon the appropriate scaffolding and supporting infrastructure.
The commissioners recommended that it was time to lower the voting age to 16. That flowed from granting the vote to women in 1919 and lowering the voting age to 18 in 1971. It would be a progressive, precedent-setting signal of inclusivity for the rest of Canada. The commissioners also recommended that a more extensive civics education program be implemented throughout the New Brunswick school system.
The commission was asked to look at two voting methods: the current first-past-the-post system or a preferential ballot. The commissioners decided that a preferential ballot would be an incremental improvement that could be implemented quickly without being disruptive. A preferential ballot would maintain the election of a single MLA for each constituency and provide more effective ballot choices for voters.
In addition, the commission made a longer term recommendation that, along with the redrawing of the electoral boundaries mandated to occur every 10 years, serious consideration be given to adopting some form of proportional representation.
The biggest change in the commission’s thought process occurred during deliberations on electronic voting. At the outset, every commissioner believed that the time had arrived for e-voting. After all, we spend a large portion of our days communicating through emails and social media, we do our banking online and we transfer important documents in digital format.
But expert testimony overwhelmingly recommended against proceeding with e-voting now. It became abundantly clear that the risks of election fraud linked to e-voting were too high.
The experts emphasized that security, privacy and confidentiality couldn’t be guaranteed under the current infrastructure. Above all, the sacrosanct anonymity of a person’s vote preference would be shattered by moving to electronic voting at this time.
So the commission recommended against adopting e-voting at this time. However, it recommended we move to e-voting as soon as the weaknesses in the digital infrastructure are fixed through a pilot project.
At the end of the day, democracy is a public good, owned by its citizens. The success of our democracy depends on the full and equal participation of all its citizens.
Dr. Constantine Passaris is a professor of economics at the University of New Brunswick and a national research affiliate of the Prentice Institute for Global Economy and Population at the University of Lethbridge. He was a member of the New Brunswick Electoral Reform Commission.