Spring or summer vote in N.S. would create headaches for elections officials

·3 min read
Nova Scotia's chief electoral officer says there will be 'unique challenges' if an election is called during the pandemic. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia's chief electoral officer says there will be 'unique challenges' if an election is called during the pandemic. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)

Running an election isn't easy at the best of times. But the ongoing pandemic, and the fact Nova Scotia's cabinet still hasn't brought into force amendments to the Elections Act passed more than a year ago, is causing even bigger headaches for those charged with preparing for the province's 41st general election.

A report published Thursday by the province's chief electoral officer, Richard Temporale, outlines the "unique challenges" he and his team will face if Premier Iain Rankin calls a vote for this spring or summer.

The 17-page document says school gyms, which are usual polling places, especially in rural communities, are off limits until classes end. That's because, during the pandemic, only teachers, staff and students are allowed inside. It means local elections officials are scrambling to try to find alternative poll locations.

During the pandemic, poll workers will need to wear masks and gowns, and it's expected voters will make use of advanced polls and write-in ballots like never before.

The report suggests the advanced or alternate voting could delay some election results. That's because changes to the Elections Act to allow e-ballots for military members stationed outside province and for a digital voting pilot project at advanced polls has yet to be proclaimed.

Richard Temporale, Nova Scotia's chief electoral officer, is shown in November 2019.
Richard Temporale, Nova Scotia's chief electoral officer, is shown in November 2019.(Jean Laroche/CBC)

In the event a region or the entire province was locked down to limit the spread of COVID-19, it would be cabinet, not the chief electoral officer, that would have the power to reschedule the vote.

The current Elections Act states that Temporale can recommend the vote be postponed, but the decision rests with cabinet. Officials also estimate advanced polling will jump from 30 percent in 2017 to 42 percent in the next election.

Voting early

The report states Elections Nova Scotia will focus on expanding "early voting options" and promote voting by mail to try to reduce the number of people at the polls on election day.

"In 2017, 69 per cent of those who voted chose election day," the report said. "In 2021, a similar turnout would make it the most crowded day for voters and would provide the least ability for voters to physically distance to meet COVID precautions."

But the report suggests as many as 50,000 Nova Scotians might use the vote-by-mail option in 2021, when only 4,500 did so in the last election.

Mail-in-ballots must be received by the time the polls close on election day. Any that come in after 8 p.m. would be rejected. The report notes, "The prospect of having to reject late returned mail-in ballots has increased tenfold."

Normally, preliminary results for all electoral districts are available on election night, or later in tight races or if there are particular problems, but Temporale suggests pandemic precautions and the large number of early votes may make that job harder than ever.

"I am expecting significantly greater numbers of early vote ballots to count on election night than in 2017, which was itself a record number," states Temporale in the report.

"While I expect preliminary results from all election day and mobile polls will be reported on election day, we may be required to delay the delivery of early voting results until the day after election day to reduce the risk of human error in the count because of fatigue."

In an extremely tight race, that may mean voters going to bed on election night not knowing which party will form the next government, or whether that party has a majority or an minority.

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