The Nova Scotia election in Nova Scotia is now over, and it appears the voting process went smoothly, although turnout was historically low with 45 per cent of eligible voters not casting ballots.
Elections Nova Scotia (ENS) had its hands full, with an election carried out during a pandemic under public health restrictions, and to a lesser extent, during the summer when many aren’t home and aren’t fully engaged.
ENS was able to handle those and other challenges well, but the independent body made a regrettable error in the lead up to election night.
Citing public health restrictions and the fact that returning offices are quite small, ENS banned media from all returning offices on election night, instead directing journalists to its website.
To those not in the media, this might seem like an insignificant decision. But it matters because by not allowing media at returning offices, ENS not only prevented the public from receiving immediate, independent results, it also cost some reporters freelance work during an economically crippling pandemic.
While it was somewhat convenient to have the results uploaded to the ENS website, those results are posted after they are relayed to returning offices from each poll. With media in the returning offices, the public receives local numbers immediately, without relying on a website. Remember some citizens still have unreliable Internet access or none at all.
Even trying to access local results on provincial television can be troublesome, as local ridings tend to receive lesser attention than those elsewhere, despite their demonstrated electoral importance.
And if the ENS web site crashed, or if local Internet service slowed transmission of data (as is often the case), there would have been technical difficulties preventing the relaying of the vote, and ENS wouldn’t have been able to rely on the media to keep the public informed. Thankfully, that did not happen.
It’s also not clear who ENS consulted or if it even considered the effect on rural media and citizens.
It was the suggestion of this newspaper that a couple of media representatives be permitted at the returning offices. Of course, they would’ve had to be fully vaccinated or have negative COVID-19 tests, and follow all public health rules.
But when contacted, ENS officials wouldn’t consider the request.
The main problem with this decision was that it completely ignored rural communities and small media organizations.
In rural areas, returning offices are usually in larger facilities, like halls or community centres, and there is a small number of staff and representatives from each party.
Rural areas often have a small group of local media representatives, like newspapers and radio stations.
This means that a very small group of media, even under the current public health restrictions, should have been able to attend any returning office in the province.
We don’t know for certain, but it appears ENS was following a one size fits all solution better suited for urban areas with smaller returning offices and more media.
Admittedly the reversal of this decision would have created another headache for ENS, among the many it was juggling, but it would have been a change for everyone’s benefit, not just the media.
A properly functioning media is a reliable vessel through which people can access timely and accurate information; when that access is denied, the public is prevented from getting the information they need, when they need it.