Nova Scotia voter turnout in Tuesday's election was 55 per cent — near historic low

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HALIFAX — Despite more options for Nova Scotians to cast ballots in Tuesday's provincial election, turnout was close to a historic low.

Slightly more than 55 per cent of registered voters cast ballots — close to 423,000 people — out of the roughly 759,000 who had the right to vote, figures released Thursday by Elections Nova Scotia indicated.

The Progressive Conservatives won a majority government with 38.4 per cent support — or 162,478 votes, about one-fifth of the electorate.

That mandate offers them effective control over the legislature and its committees, and it gives them important influence on day-to-day services ranging from the availability of family doctors to the state of the roads and schools.

Records from Elections Nova Scotia show a steady drop in voter turnout over the decades, from 82 per cent in 1960 to a historic low of 53.4 per cent in the 2017 general election won by the Liberals.

A spokeswoman for Elections Nova Scotia says the agency is declining comment on voter turnout until all post-election analysis is complete.

Political scientists, however, have noted that the agency introduced innovations to make voting more accessible during the 41st general election, ranging from easy-to-access community polls to mail-in ballots.

Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said in an interview Friday turnout could have been worse but the figures are nonetheless concerning.

"I'm relieved the voter turnout was higher than the psychological threshold of 50 per cent (of the electorate) and it didn't decline from the 2017 election," he said.

"But there were many opportunities to vote, over many days … So there's definitely important work to be done to raise voter interest and emphasize the importance of civic engagement."

He said the drop in voter turnout since the 1960s and 1970s can be explained by the end of a patronage system in the province, in which some voters cast ballots out of inherited loyalties to parties and because they expected jobs and contracts when their parties took power.

But he said other reasons for the decline can be explained by a greater transience in the population, which he said often leads to citizens who are less rooted and engaged in political issues.

"It often takes young adults longer to establish themselves in a community, and the habits of voting and acquainting themselves with the issues in a community have been lost to some extent," Urbaniak said.

When major issues appear to be at stake, voter turnout tends to rebound, as occurred in the Quebec independence referendums, he noted.

Urbaniak also cited the work of American political scientist Robert Putnam, who has discussed the drop in so-called social capital, which Putnam described as the connections between individuals through social networks in their communities.

"The decline in voter turnout is linked to other indicators, such as the decline in following mainstream media, in attending public meetings and even visiting other people in their homes," Urbaniak said. Putnam's research indicated that as citizens engage with one another less frequently in these social settings, their tendency to vote declines, he added.

During the provincial campaign, Tory Leader Tim Houston criticized the Liberals for calling the election in the middle of summer, suggesting his opponents were deliberating hoping for a poor turnout that would benefit the governing party. Houston has pledged to create fixed election dates for the province.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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