ST. MARY’S – Voters let their fingers do the walking at a special election earlier this month, pushing participation rates to the highest level ever recorded in the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s, according to Chief Administrative Officer Marvin MacDonald.
“It is an exceptionally high turnout rate; one that I don’t think we have ever seen before here,” he said of 73.4 per cent voter participation during the race for the District 8 council seat (Port Bickerton, Harpellville and area), which culminated on Jan. 16.
He added that of 278 eligible voters, 121 cast their ballots online, while another 83 used their telephones. Seventy-four did not participate.
Noting that council had limited the special election to voting by telephone and Internet only, he said: “The use of online technology is increasing. But no matter where you go in the province, this is a high participation rate.”
Indeed, Elections Nova Scotia’s official results of the 2017 provincial election (the most recent available) show that the average turnout at St. Mary’s four polling stations during that ballot was 46.25 per cent (Greenfield Oyster Club in Melrose, 46 per cent; St. Luke’s Parish Hall in Liscomb, 46.9 per cent; Sherbrooke municipal office, 44.9 per cent; and the Port Bickerton Community Centre, 47.2 per per cent).
The mobile polls arranged for residents of High-Crest Sherbrooke Home for Special Care and Sherbrooke/Harbour View Lodge in that election registered substantially higher turnouts of 65.5 per cent, suggesting that easy access to ballot boxes played a role in those results.
MacDonald, who has administered several provincial and local elections in St. Mary’s over the years, cited several possible factors for this month’s robust public interest.
“For one thing, it [District 8 special election] came so soon after the general municipal election in October. To have that particular district go back to the polls so soon probably drew more attention to issues. People were already ready to participate.”
Specifically, he said, the near-term prospect of an international whale sanctuary in Port Hilford, and the long-term uncertainty over Atlantic Gold’s plans for an open pit mine upriver from Sherbrooke, seemed to resonate with voters.
Last week, James Harpell – who won by a margin of 158 to 46 against his rival James Bingley in District 8 – told The Journal that whales and gold were the top two topics of doorstep conversation as he canvassed the constituency for votes.
“A lot of people were really excited about the beluga whales coming. The first thing they wanted to know was what I thought about it,” he said. “The second thing they wanted to talk about was the gold mine. It was a hot topic. People were on board with the idea of not being left in the wake of an open pit mine that might harm the environment in the future.”
Beyond this, MacDonald thinks online platforms are facilitating the act of voting.
“In some places, like HRM, the argument has been that turnout hasn’t been affected by the electronic voting option. Maybe that’s because it has been really new,” he said.
“But now people are more inclined to use the computer for more things. They do more online banking and shopping. If you are used to using computers already, the platforms to vote are a lot easier.”
The Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust and other levels of government and the private sector are part way through a $263 million program to bring high-speed internet to 97 per cent of the province’s rural areas, such as St. Mary’s, by 2022.
Said MacDonald: “I do think that election turnouts in the future will be higher because of electronic voting.”
Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal