When voters arrive at a polling station in Saint-Louis de Kent on May 10 to choose the next mayor and council, residents could see just two names for five open positions.
For the four seats up for grabs on council, just one person has come forward, and there is just a single person running for mayor.
That situation is one of the more extreme examples playing out across the province ahead of Friday’s nomination deadline.
Elections New Brunswick is hoping to see more people come forward, but time is running out. Candidates for mayor, council, regional health authority boards and district education councils must file their papers by 2 p.m. Friday to be on the ballot.
“There’s typically those candidates that are waiting to see if there’s any competition and will have their papers filled out and have them ready to bring in on Friday,” said Paul Harpelle, the communications direction for Elections NB.
As of Thursday afternoon there are 17 council seats without a candidate. Overall, candidate numbers are down for all positions as well. There were over 1,100 candidates in the 2016 local government elections, compared to 754 as of Thursday morning.
A look at the races for district education councils and regional health authority boards is even more sobering. Just eight of 58 positions on education councils will be contested, if current numbers hold, and 26 positions have no candidate at all.
The number of positions without candidates, as well as the amount of positions that could see candidates acclaimed, which sit at triple digits, are less than ideal, Harpelle says.
“Democracy is better served when electors are given a choice, a field of candidates to choose from,” he said.
“It also creates, for electors, a greater sense of reasons to go out to vote because there is an actual contest. It generates more excitement in those municipalities when there are choices to be made.”
Voter turnout was 34.5 per cent in 2016, down a percentage point from the previous election in 2012.
Alex Scholten is the deputy mayor of New Maryland and the president of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick. Scholten is one of just three people running for five spots on council.
“What we do impacts people’s daily lives,” Scholten said.
“We feel very strongly about the importance of municipal governance and it doesn’t sit well with us when we don’t see a tremendous level of candidates coming forward.”
As with everything that has happened over the last 13 months, the COVID-19 pandemic looms in the background of the campaign. Local government elections were initially scheduled for May 2020, but were postponed to this year, adding an extra year to the terms of civic representatives.
Scholten thinks that may have played a role in many incumbents opting not to run again and worries the ongoing pandemic may have dulled the willingness of others to step into the ring.
Not every part of the province is seeing a lack of candidates. Fredericton has 32 candidates across 12 wards with another four people running for mayor.
Saint John has 40 candidates across that city’s four wards, also with four people running for mayor.
Outgoing mayor Don Darling says it’s a sign that “democracy is alive” in the port city, but laments the ongoing lack of engagement from voters come election day.
“That we’ve had so many candidates step up should be celebrated,” Darling said.
“The next step is to increase the voter turnout.”
Looking at areas that have been less successful in recruiting candidates, Darling says that could be due to a variety of reasons.
“I think it’s the toll of the job, I think it’s the remuneration of the job, I think it’s the impacts of social media and the family,” he said.
“I think we have to reflect on that, because at the end of the day, if we start failing to attract the right candidates with the right skills and motivation to do the job … we’re going to be in trouble.”
Local governance is very much at the fore of the provincial conversation right now, with the release of a green paper with various ideas for how governance and taxation could be reformed.
Daniel Allain, the minister of local government and local governance reform, said Tuesday that two of his top concerns as he enters into a months long consultation process will be the sheer number of municipal entities, as well as the 30 per cent of the population that live in local service districts (LSDs) and have no municipal representation.
“We have too many entities and it’s really important to reduce the number of entities,” Allain told reporters on Tuesday.
There are now 340 municipal entities in the province, including cities, towns, villages and local service districts (LSD). The green paper notes that Nova Scotia, which has a larger population, has just 50 municipal units.
But Scholten says there’s another change the province could make that would allow for more people, particularly those from backgrounds not often represented around council horseshoes, to get involved: allowing permanent residents the right to vote.
“We’re also looking at a lack of candidates in a number of municipalities,” Scholten said.
“If we want to attract more people, let’s make a system that encourages more people to come to the table. The faces of our communities are changing. Let’s make sure our council tables represent that.”
Darling agrees that not only are the different viewpoints and opinions that come from contested races important, but working to ensure decision makers reflect the communities they serve needs to be a priority.
“I don’t believe that today, who we see sitting around the table, represents the diversity of the community,” he said.
The Liberals had introduced legislation looking to extend voting rights for municipal elections to permanent residents in December, but the bill remains stalled at second reading.
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