Springtide Collective concerned with municipal elections in the fall

Editor’s note: The following letter was written to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Chuck Porter.

Dear Minister Porter,

I am writing to confirm that the Springtide Board of Directors recently voted unanimously in support of a motion to withdraw from our contract with the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing (DMAH) to deliver the Local Decisions program for the 2020 municipal elections.

This is not a decision we came to lightly. We were excited by the work we had planned, but after re-assessing the circumstances surrounding the administration of fall elections, we feel compelled to step back from this contract. As you know, the agreement between Springtide and DMAH asked Springtide to develop, market and deliver educational programming meant to encourage candidate and voter participation in the fall elections.

After reading Mayor Mood’s letter and your response in media reports, I started to worry about how we could, in good conscience, deliver on our contract obligations, so I brought the issue to my board. How could we encourage participation in an election, when the two orders of government that share responsibility in law for its administration don’t agree on whether it can happen safely and fairly?

To inform our discussion, I conducted a rough analysis of the situation. I wanted to understand what changes to election administration would be required to protect voters, candidates and election workers from COVID-19 and how the integrity of the election might be affected by these changes. I compared what we know about how Nova Scotia’s fall elections will be administered to what elections administrators in other jurisdictions are doing to adapt their election procedures. Then, I assessed whether the work we agreed to do together in February still made sense given the spirit of the contract, and whether it was something I felt confident our organization could deliver with integrity – in light of the potential safety and election integrity issues. Finally, I considered how your decision might affect the groups your department asked us to prioritize – ones from communities that are consistently underrepresented as candidates and councillors in municipalities across Nova Scotia.

This analysis was based on publicly available information, as well as my own experience working in the field of democratic engagement for the last 10 years and Springtide’s experience working on the Local Decisions project since February, and developing the program in 2016. Based on that analysis, I was not comfortable proceeding with the work. I’ve summarized my reasons for encouraging the board to withdraw from the contract.

First, public health officials predict a second wave of COVID-19 will strike at some point during the fall or winter. If it turns out the election must be cancelled in order to flatten the curve of a second wave, candidates and election administrators will have lost valuable time and money preparing for an election that is inevitably delayed.

The second is that your decision appears to have been made without consulting active election administrators and without guidance from provincial public health officials. According to CBC reporting on internal surveys of the Association of Municipal Administrators, more than three-quarters of Chief Administrative Officers at Nova Scotia municipalities favour delayed elections.

Third, the challenges of administering an election during a pandemic will almost certainly be compounded by pre-existing vulnerabilities and archaisms fixed in law by the Municipal Elections Act (MEA) and the leave it to the municipalities approach underscored in your letter to Mayor Mood. In brief, the standards of the act are far lower than those demanded of provincial and federal election administrators. The act leaves too much discretion to municipalities on how to administer and oversee elections when there isn’t sufficient scale in smaller municipalities to continually monitor and improve standards as the world changes. The act requires almost no public reporting by returning officers or campaigns. This means we don’t (and can’t) know for certain what vulnerabilities exist in municipal election administration in Nova Scotia at a time when previously overlooked vulnerabilities in systems of all kinds the world over are causing problems that can no longer be overlooked.

Fourth, the confidence you have expressed in the capacity of municipalities to run safe and fair elections is not just inconsistent with what municipalities are saying, but inconsistent with the hesitations expressed by election administrators in other jurisdictions in Canada where elections are expected or scheduled in the coming months. In the case of both Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, elections are held to higher standards for public reporting and administration, and are run by permanent election administrators (whose only job is running elections) with greater resources at their disposal than those available to municipalities. In these jurisdictions, election administrators are cautioning the lawmakers to whom they report about the challenges of running traditional elections, and the need for more time to develop safe alternatives.

Fifth is that the sole justification you offered for not delaying the elections was to ensure the representation of “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.” However, the Municipal Elections Act grants you the power to schedule special elections (by-elections) for the vacant seats within those communities at a time of your choosing.

Sixth, the groups your department asked us to prioritize when designing our programming were candidates from the many groups that have – for centuries – been consistently underrepresented in council chambers and in all of the lawmaking bodies that govern this land. These groups include: women, African Nova Scotians, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, and other people of colour. Many of the people in these groups have already been more adversely affected by the health and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. The incumbents I’ve spoken with acknowledge the advantage is their own in this election. Even three-quarters of them favour a delayed election, according to surveys from the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities.

In my view, rushing into fall elections is out of step with the spirit of the work we agreed to do with your department in February. It makes that work – and more importantly, the work of those we intended to support – more challenging. More concerning is the lack of compelling evidence to indicate a safe and fair election is possible, and the challenges this creates for municipalities whose staff have no choice but to administer the election. It does not feel responsible for us to proceed with this work, given all of the concerns identified above.

Our seventh major concern surrounds ongoing public interest issues. As far as I can tell, this will be the most complicated and challenging election to administer in Canadian history. Nova Scotia municipalities have nearly as many independent election administrations as there are states in America. Voters will elect more councillors and mayors than there are Members of Parliament in Canada. We’re less than four months away from election day, and the procedures to determine how it will be done safely and fairly don’t yet exist. There are pre-existing public interest issues with the administration of municipal elections that will surely be aggravated if elections are administered during a pandemic.

At least some of the issues noted above could have been more easily resolved if members of the Nova Scotia legislature and the various ministers responsible had taken better care of the Municipal Elections Act in the decades preceding this moment. As a result of this lack of care, we are a few months away from the beginning of the official campaign period and it remains unclear how voting can be conducted safely and fairly. The lines of accountability are blurred. The Municipal Elections Officer – an appointment by Governor in Council – has full authority within the act to direct local returning officers on how to administer the election, but it is unclear whether that will happen (nor is there any indication that the authority to issue two directives which exists in that role has ever been formally exercised). Instead, a non-public working group composed of unnamed members of the Association of Municipal Administrators, the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, and staff from DMAH will sort out how the election will be run.

The NSFM, it should be noted, is an organization that is governed exclusively by incumbent councillors and mayors, many of whom are presumably re-offering. This group exists nowhere in legislation and there are no clear mechanisms by which it can be held publicly accountable. The outdated Municipal Elections Act will make it more difficult to administer a lawful, safe, accessible election.

In a few months, returning officers will be required by law to start advertising the election in community newspapers that don’t exist – no other election advertisement is required. On your encouragement, small municipalities that have never even maintained an elections section on their Web sites will now attempt to run an online election for the very first time. Come election day, the act requires returning officers to set up polling stations in all long term care homes with more than 10 residents, where I’m told by a former election worker that the voting procedure has simply been to walk a ballot box from room to room.

Elections administrators in other jurisdictions are expressing concern about holding elections during a pandemic. Dr. Michael Boda is the Chief Electoral Officer for Saskatchewan, where a provincial election is required to be held on or before October 27.

The CBC has reported Boda as saying that COVID-19 poses challenges to the election process like nothing he’s seen in his two decades working in election administration. According to Boda, “Elections are not like a speedboat, they’re more like a ship, and you don’t turn them quickly, because if you do you overwhelm the system and the system breaks down.” Boda has warned lawmakers in Saskatchewan they may need to delay the Fall election until the Spring of 2021, noting that options like mail-in balloting are not practical for the Fall given the expected competition to procure mail-in ballots preceding the American elections in early November.

In New Brunswick, the municipal elections scheduled for May 11 have been delayed. Public health officials and election administrators were consulted in the decision. Kim Poffenroth, the chief electoral officer for New Brunswick’s municipal and provincial elections, met with an all-party committee to advise them of the dangers of a high-contact election, days before the province’s legislature passed a law in mid-March that would delay municipal elections for up to a year. As I see it, the goal of election administrators in good times should be this: anyone who is eligible and wishes to vote needs to be able to do so on or before Election Day. During a pandemic, that bar is raised. Anyone who is symptomatic or tests positive for COVID-19 must be able to vote in a way that does not put election workers or other voters at risk, especially the immunocompromised ones, who also need to be able to vote. A safe and fair election would require service standards that look more like a hospital than a grocery store: care must be taken to ensure all eligible voters are – one way or another – given the opportunity to vote.

The Parliamentary elections held in South Korea on April 15 offer a useful model for ensuring all voters have voting opportunities. We’re nowhere near ready to administer an election with that level of care. On-line voting, which most municipalities seem to be turning to at this moment, does not solve this problem. There are serious election integrity issues with on-line voting that have yet to be adequately addressed in any voting context that I am familiar with. The processes that have been developed over the course of decades to protect the integrity of an election using paper ballots are not easily transposed into an on-line system. Protecting the secrecy of the ballot, ensuring each vote is counted properly and transparently, and holding administrators accountable – all of that is virtually impossible to scrutinize or observe in an on-line election. It appears the majority of municipalities will outsource the trust once given to a circle of election workers and candidate’s scrutineers to a single corporation, and in some cases moving to an entirely on-line election.

There are three issues unique to Nova Scotia’s Fall elections that should concern us with on-line voting. First, the time available for municipalities who have never before held elections online to develop on-line is an unreasonable window for this kind of work to take place. I worry that smaller municipalities will feel backed into a corner, without the time to investigate their options or scrutinize the implementation of new systems.

Second, many rural and low-income Nova Scotians do not have home Internet access and cannot access voting opportunities from home. Some of those voters are immunocompromised and remain fearful of visiting public places where they might be able to vote online.

Third, municipal elections happen during hurricane season. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the 2020 hurricane season to be unusually active. To vote on-line, a voter needs electricity and Internet access, two utilities that reliably fail during strong hurricanes. Hurricane Dorian made getting on-line difficult in urban areas usually serviced by high-speed Internet, and nearly impossible for those in rural areas who were without power and Internet for as many as seven days.

These are just some of the issues we foresee with rushing an election during a pandemic. Municipalities need more time to prepare. We all deserve better municipal election laws, which also take time. Neither of these problems can be solved without attention, leadership and action from your office; or in the absence of that, without the attention of a majority of members of the legislative assembly. I hope this decision will be revisited soon.

As I mentioned above, our decision to step away from the Local Decisions project was not taken lightly.

Mark Coffin

executive director

Springtide Collective