Unusually high voter turnout in school board election raises concerns

·4 min read

An unusually high voter turnout to elect a representative for Nova Scotia's French-language school board has raised concern among parents and pundits.

The recent election saw more than 10 times the voters cast a ballot for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality/Victoria County representative on the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP).

"Clearly more people voted than are actually entitled to vote, so that's a concern for us," said Caroline Arsenault, president of the Fédération des parents acadiens de la Nouvelle-Écosse, which represents francophone parents in the province.

In CBRM's Oct. 17 election, 3,636 voters cast ballots for the two candidates, Clermont Charland and Marcel LeFort, and 494 people spoiled their ballots.

Charland and LeFort also ran against each other in 2016, totalling 395 votes between them.

'Implausibly high'

Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, calls the 2020 results "implausibly high." He said the high number of spoiled ballots also raises questions about the process.

"What seems to have happened is that a high number of voters were genuinely and innocently confused when they saw the ballot," said Urbaniak.

CBRM only offered electronic voting this year. It was also the first election since the province dissolved English school boards in 2018. In elections past, voters would have been asked whether they wanted a ballot for the English-language or French-language school board. Urbaniak believes that change might have led to some confusion.

According to the 2016 census, 670 people in CBRM identify French as their mother tongue and 3,910 reported knowledge of both English and French.

Qualifying to vote

On the 2020 ballots, voters in CBRM first selected their choices for mayor and council before they were presented with the qualifications for voting in the CSAP election. They were then asked if they qualified to vote in the CSAP election. If they selected yes, they were then asked to vote for either Charland or LeFort.

In order to qualify to vote in a CSAP, voters must meet the following criteria:

  • Your first language learned and still understood is French.

  • Or you received your primary school instruction in Canada in a French first language program.

  • Or any of your children have received or are receiving primary or secondary school instruction in Canada in a French first language program.

There was nothing to stop voters from simply saying yes to these qualifications and voting in the CSAP election.

Runner-up filing complaint

Charland, who lost the race against LeFort in CBRM, believes that's a problem.

"The honour system was a fiasco," he said. "It's terrible."

He said he ran into acquaintances after the election who told him they voted for him, despite not meeting any of the qualifications for voting.

Charland said he is not contesting the results, but is submitting a complaint to the Department of Municipal Affairs.

Winner responds

LeFort declined to be interviewed. But in an email to CBC News, LeFort said he believes the number of people who were eligible to vote has been greatly underestimated.

He said they include people who are Acadian but choose not to identify as such, as well as past students who attended French-language schools outside of CBRM but now live in the municipality.

"It is against Canadian law to ask an individual how and why they are entitled, so the buck stops there!" he wrote. "Why should every Canadian not be allowed to vote should they be interested?"

LeFort suggested in his email that anyone disputing the results of the election is a sore loser.

"I guess it happens in every political race," he said. "There are winners and then there are those who feel that they were entitled to win!"

A charter issue

But Arsenault said having ineligible people vote in the election goes against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The reason why CSAP remains as a school board in Nova Scotia is because part of our charter rights to French education includes the right to self-govern our education system," she said.

"If anybody is able to cast a vote for our school board, then the effectiveness is really reduced. It's really in question."

Arsenault said more people voted in the municipality's CSAP election than in the predominately Acadian municipality of Clare. Although Clare has fewer people than CBRM, Arsenault said the difference in the demographics shows something is off.

She believes a voter registration list is needed to make the election process more fair.

Urbaniak agrees.

"This is maybe a reform we should implement going forward so it's clear and fair because there are constitutional rights at issue here," he said.

No one from the provincial government was immediately available for comment.