FREDERICTON — Vote counting in New Brunswick was suspended Monday night after technical glitches stalled the tally of ballots at the conclusion of the province’s election campaign.
New Brunswick’s Liberals and governing Progressive Conservatives were locked in an unusually tight contest but the race was put on hold at about 10:45 p.m. AT after officials with Elections New Brunswick said they became concerned about discrepancies in the tabulation.
A spokesman for Elections New Brunswick said the agency encountered a technical problem with the tabulation machines it was using to count ballots.
Paul Harpelle said in an email that there were problems uploading data from memory cards and they were working “frantically” to resolve the delay in getting final results tallied.
With most polls reporting results before the vote count was suspended, the Liberals were leading and elected in 25 ridings compared to the Tories with 23.
Green Leader David Coon had a small lead in a close three-way race in the riding of Fredericton South.
But Liberal campaign manager Bertin LeBlanc said the uncertainty had put a damper on the excitement that was building early after the polls closed.
People are worried, LeBlanc said.
“You’re left in a very uncertain situation,” he said. “You don’t dare be too happy about what you’ve seen previously in the evening.”
LeBlanc said the problems raise questions about the decision to use tabulation machines. It was the first time New Brunswick used them for a provincial election.
The Liberals, led by political rookie Brian Gallant, had been the perceived front-runner in the race long before the campaign even began. But the results indicated a much closer contest than polls suggested.
Like his main rival, Tory Premier David Alward, Gallant focused his campaign on employment growth, promising to create thousands of jobs by spending $900 million over six years to pave roads, repair bridges and upgrade other infrastructure.
By contrast, Alward sought a second mandate by committing to spur economic growth through expansion of the province’s relatively new but contentious shale gas industry.
Alward’s position was polarizing in the province, where public protests have raised concerns about the industry’s use of hydraulic fracturing.
But Alward, 54, said New Brunswick is on the verge of $10 billion in private investment if it develops its deposits of shale gas and welcomes the proposed Energy East Pipeline, which could see oil shipped from Alberta to Saint John.
Alward and Gallant were both elected in their ridings by wide margins. But six of Alward’s cabinet ministers went down in defeat.
Gallant, 32, has said there should be a moratorium on fracking until the risks to the environment, human health and water are known.
However, Gallant has refused to rule out allowing fracking during the first term of a Liberal government, prompting criticism from anti-fracking activists who say his stand is muddled.
As well, Gallant appeared to stumble late the campaign as his rivals pressed him to explain how the moratorium would work and how the province could afford a stimulus plan worth nearly a billion dollars when it is looking at carrying a projected deficit of $387 million.
The province’s economic growth rate was the worst in the country last year.
While the province’s jobless rate dipped to 8.7 per cent last month — slightly lower than its three Atlantic neighbours — that snapshot figure masks an annual trend that has seen steady increases since 2007.
Employment for workers between the ages of 25 and 44 has fallen by 3,800 people since 2010 when the Tories were elected to govern with a majority. The public debt stands at $12.2 billion and rising.
NDP Leader Dominic Cardy, 44, spent much of his time shifting his party’s economic policies to the centre, promising a balanced budget, tax credits for employers who create new jobs and an end to corporate subsidies.
But the strategy failed. Despite running four high-profile candidates in the hopes of a breakthrough, the New Democrats did not see a single member elected. The last time the NDP had a member in the legislature was in 2005.
Cardy, who lost in the riding of Fredericton West-Hanwell, promptly announced he would resign as party leader in a couple of weeks.
He said he realizes the party could have focused its efforts it the where he was running, but he preferred to make a provincewide bid to improve the NDP’s standing.
“My message to my party that I love, and my province which I love, is that it’s much better to reach your arms out wide and to fall and to stand up again than it is never to dream at all,” Cardy said to throngs of supporters.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Gallant took aim at the NDP, saying Cardy’s platform doesn’t contain cost estimates for 24 of its main commitments.
The Liberal shift in focus prompted some pundits to suggest the party was worried that the NDP could siphon votes from the Liberals in key ridings, making it possible for the Tories to come up the middle.
Coon, 57, pushed for action on climate change, saying practical solutions to reduce New Brunswick’s carbon footprint would lead to new jobs.
When the legislature dissolved, the Progressive Conservatives had 41 members, the Liberals 13 and there was one Independent. The election is being fought on a new electoral map that cuts the number of seats in the legislature to 49 from 55.