Despite objections, municipal elections still scheduled for October

HALIFAX: Despite concerns from municipal officials across Nova Scotia, the provincial government has decided to proceed with elections this fall.

In a letter dated May 13, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Chuck Porter confirmed that municipal elections will be held in October.

“Because the situation continues to be unpredictable, I encourage municipalities to continue their preparation for an October election with the current public health protocols in mind, specifically the requirements around social distancing,” Porter wrote. “With the tools and flexibility provided in the Municipal Elections Act, I am confident municipalities can hold safe and democratic elections that conform with public health directives, if necessary.”

The letter was in response to correspondence from Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM) president Pam Mood who questioned whether a vote should be held in the middle of a pandemic.

“The province is currently under a State of Emergency, and municipalities are doing their best to carry on with usual business in these extraordinary times,” Mood wrote. “But as current cancellations push further out into the summer, the NSFM Board of Directors has come to question whether Nova Scotia will be able to uphold a fair and democratic election on October 17.”

Because municipalities have been forced to hold virtual meetings, revise budgets and develop new staffing plans, while maintaining essential services, preparing for an election will increase this already overflowing burden, Mood noted.

And even if current distancing measures are relaxed this summer, Mood echoed the concerns of Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton and Richmond Warden Brian Marchand that municipalities will still face serious difficulties in preparing for an October election.

“Enumeration is not possible in this current COVID climate, nor is canvassing; candidates can’t go door to door,” Mood wrote. “Polling stations will be hard to book and staff, and voter outreach efforts will be complicated.”

Aside from the challenges in holding a vote, Mood pointed to the problems awaiting newly-elected councils.

“It is even more difficult to envision the difficulties that would be experienced by new councils going through orientation in October, only to be plunged into budget deliberations a few short months later,” wrote Mood. “Staff will be focused, as will the elected, on all measures that will return us to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. Picking up the pieces will be time and labour intensive and will require all hands – those who have been in the trenches during this crisis – on deck.”

In response, Porter laid out options for municipalities to hold elections, including using federal and provincial voting lists from Elections Nova Scotia, rather than conducting door-to-door enumeration.

The minister said municipalities can pass by-laws for alternative voting methods such as by mail, telephone or e-voting. Porter said new municipal legislation can also allow for more advance polls to reduce in-person contact on election day.

Porter asked municipalities consider options for physical distancing at voting stations by increasing the number of sites and placing markers on the floors to direct traffic.

Candidates and their campaign teams are encouraged to use signs and other printed materials, telephone, social media, and virtual options to engage voters, rather than canvassing door-to-door, Porter wrote.

“All candidates will be required to change from traditional methods of campaigning due to the current situation,” spokesperson Krista Higdon said. “We encourage candidates to get creative in getting their platform to electors.”

Noting that the department can assist municipalities to plan and administer elections, Porter said on-line training will be available to returning officers.

Higdon said the material will be tailored to planning and campaigning in an environment of social distancing, which they will assist candidates, especially new candidates.

“This is an unprecedented time, and now more than ever, it is critical that the democratic rights of citizens are preserved and respected,” the minister wrote. “We are aware of a number of municipalities with vacancies on council who are holding off on filling those vacancies pending the October election. If we delay elections beyond October, there will be thousands of Nova Scotians who will not have a representative at the table when those councils make important decisions about the future of their communities.”

After the departure of former deputy mayor Trevor Boudreau from Port Hawkesbury Town Council recently, council was unable to reach a consensus on how to replace him, and now because there isn’t enough time before October to hold a special election, that seat remains vacant.