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Why one unlikely New Brunswicker is prohibited by law from voting

Last Updated Sep 19, 2018 at 7:20 pm EDT

New Brunswick voters head to the polls Monday in a provincial election, but the woman in charge of the entire electoral process, and encouraging more people to vote, won't be casting a ballot -- she's not allowed to. New Brunswick Chief Electoral officer Kimberly Poffenroth poses as she signs the writs for the Sept. 24 provincial election in Fredericton on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kevin Bissett

FREDERICTON – When New Brunswickers head to the polls Monday, one person will be prohibited entirely from casting a ballot: The woman in charge of the vote.

The law doesn’t allow Kim Poffenroth, the chief electoral officer for New Brunswick, to vote in provincial or municipal elections.

“The reason, I presume, is to enhance the non-partisan nature of the office. It enhances the perception of non-partisanship and impartiality,” she said.

But that’s not the norm across the country — about half of provinces and territories allow their chief electoral officers to cast a ballot.

The CEOs in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are all allowed to vote, while the rest are not.

Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said the restriction is a holdover from historical limits on who was able to vote.

“Judges and criminals were not able to vote, and even incarcerated offenders were not able to vote. At one point, that was for life, and then shortened to the duration of the prison sentence. Now judges can vote and prisoners can vote,” he said.

Bateman said he doesn’t think the integrity of the office would be impaired if the chief electoral officer in New Brunswick was allowed to vote, but the status quo does help them maintain an impartial image.

“It may be a case of independence overkill, but I suspect it lingers because it is a clear statement of the reality of the independence from the partisan process by the person who is in charge of administering the electoral process,” he said.

“We all know from examples around of the world how important it is to keep elections free from interference and the appearance of interference.”

The returning officers in each of New Brunswick’s 49 electoral ridings normally don’t have a vote either, but would have to cast a ballot in the event of having to break a tie.

Poffenroth said that has never happened, but if it did, everyone would then know how that person voted.

“Not only is the secrecy of their vote removed, their choices are limited as well. They can only vote for one of the two candidates who are tied — presuming it’s a two-way tie. Since that’s never happened, the chances of a three-way tie are even slimmer,” she said.

During the 2015 provincial election in Prince Edward Island, Liberal Alan McIsaac won his seat after a tie was broken by a coin-toss.

Bateman said he likes New Brunswick’s solution better.

“Having the returning officer break the tie with a vote preserves the idea that votes shall be intelligently cast. If we used a coin-toss or a lottery then the message is it really doesn’t matter who wins,” Bateman said.

But Poffenroth said she doesn’t like returning officers having to reveal how they voted, and may recommend a change to government for future elections.

Prisoners can vote in the New Brunswick election, even if they are incarcerated in jails or prisons elsewhere across the country. They do so with a mail-in ballot.

Poffenroth said they normally vote for candidates in the community where they used to live.

“If they don’t have a home address, then it’s where their family lives, and the final option is the district of the court where they were convicted. It’s never where the jail or prison is where they are incarcerated,” she said.

Even though Poffenroth won’t be voting, she said she’s hoping others do exercise their right, and increase voter turnout from the 65 per cent who turned out for the last election in 2014.

Among those who voted in advance polls this year: Michael Quinn, Poffenroth’s predecessor as chief electoral officer, who cast his ballot for the first time in least a decade in Fredericton on Monday.