QUISPAMSIS, N.B. -- Voters in New Brunswick delivered a majority win to Premier Blaine Higgs on Monday, effectively endorsing his decision to call a snap election in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic -- a move described as unsafe and unneeded by his political rivals.

The closely watched campaign was the first in the country since COVID-19 hit, and though it looked much different than previous electoral races, elections officials reported few problems during the past four weeks or on voting day.

"I want to thank every New Brunswicker who showed the country how democratic elections can be held safely during this pandemic," Higgs said Monday night in front of about 50 supporters who were wearing masks and standing two metres apart in a Quispamsis, N.B., bingo hall.

He said a majority government would provide stability "through these challenging times."

With all polls reporting, the Tories won 27 seats in the 49-seat legislature. The Liberals dropped to 17, the Green party held the three seats they won in 2018 and the People's Alliance won two seats.

As Higgs walked to the stage with his wife and two daughters, all four were wearing full face shields. And as the premier looked at the sparse crowd, he said with a smile: "There's nothing like coming to a packed hall. This is life in COVID."

Soon after Higgs delivered his victory speech, Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers announced he would be stepping down.

"Obviously with the results of this evening, it's time for another leader to step up and take this party forward," said the rookie politician, who lost his seat.

It's the first time a government in New Brunswick has won two consecutive terms since Bernard Lord led the Tories to re-election in 2003.

When Higgs called for the election last month, he insisted that his 21-month-old minority government lacked stability at a difficult time for the province.

The three other party leaders immediately accused him of political opportunism. But Higgs gambled that the electorate would see things differently.

Having won widespread praise for his leadership on the COVID-19 file, the 66-year-old former Irving Oil executive told voters he needed a majority to help his government focus on keeping people safe.

The premier reminded voters that New Brunswick still has one of the lowest levels of infection in Canada -- bested only by P.E.I. and the territories. He also cited forecasts suggesting the province was leading the country in terms of an economic recovery.

At dissolution, there had been 20 Tories, 20 Liberals, three Greens, three People's Alliance members, one Independent and two vacancies.

During the 28-day race, few candidates campaigned door-to-door, and those who did were careful to wear a mask and stand well back when speaking to voters. There were no handshakes, no kissing of babies, no big rallies.

As the Tories secured their majority win Monday, Green party Leader David Coon said the electoral system had to be changed.

"It speaks to the need for electoral reform, so we don't have these majority governments where premiers can have their way," he said.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he, too, was disappointed with the Tories' majority win, but he insisted his party would continue to press for change in the legislature.

"We still have our foot in the door," he said.

The NDP, led by 23-year-old Mackenzie Thomason, failed to win any seats, continuing a shutout that started in 2006.

While the Tories managed to secure a majority, they largely failed to make gains within the province's French-speaking regions. As a result, the province remains divided along linguistic lines -- a perennial problem that resurfaced in 2018.

Higgs said partisan politics are so entrenched in northern New Brunswick it is almost impossible to get a Tory elected.

"It wouldn't matter what you did," he said. "You could run a lampshade there and get a Liberal candidate (to win)."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2020.

-- With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax