Despite concerns from municipal officials across Nova Scotia, the provincial government has decided to proceed with elections this fall, and if a large second wave of COVID-19 infection takes place, that will severely undermine the democratic process.
In a letter dated May 13, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Chuck Porter, confirmed that municipal elections will be held in mid-October.
With the tools and flexibility provided in the Municipal Elections Act, Porter said municipalities can hold safe and democratic elections that conform to public health directives.
The minister 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.
Porter asked municipalities to 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.
Noting that the department can assist municipalities to plan and administer elections, Porter said on-line training will be available to returning officers.
Noting that is critical now more than ever to preserve and protect the democratic rights of citizens, the minister reminded that there are municipalities with vacancies on council who are holding off on filling those vacancies pending the October election. If elections are delayed, Porter said thousands of Nova Scotians will not have a representative at the table.
After the departure of former deputy mayor Trevor Boudreau from Port Hawkesbury Town Council, 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.
Porter’s 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.
As cancelations push into the summer, Mood said the NSFM Board of Directors questions 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.
All three pointed out that enumeration and canvassing door-to-door are not possible in the current COVID climate. As well, polling stations will be hard to book and staff, and voter outreach efforts will be complicated, Mood wrote.
Aside from the challenges in holding a vote, Mood pointed out that newly-elected officials will go from orientation in October, to difficult budget meetings months later.
As the Chisholm-Beaton told The Reporter last month, it is unknown whether COVID-19 will clear up by the fall, and she called the decision a matter of public health and safety.
While there are options such as virtual debates, mail-outs from candidates, and candidates phoning or e-mailing voters, Chisholm-Beaton said these alternatives do come with limitations. The most obvious is that many municipalities and voters across Nova Scotia have Internet connectivity issues. And for candidates forced to phone voters, many people could be missed by enumeration, including those with cell numbers, or unlisted home phone numbers.
Despite her intentions to seek re-election, Chisholm-Beaton said proceeding with elections only serves to provide incumbent councillors, wardens and mayors with an unfair advantage because they knocked on doors and shook hands four years ago, and have since gained name recognition.
“It would be tough for new candidates to get their names out there, and build up public rapport,” Chisholm-Beaton said.
The Richmond Warden agreed and recommended that provincial officials hold-off for a year, just to be sure, pointing out that the Emergency Management Organization said the pandemic could last anywhere from 18-24 months.
With their primary considerations being public health and safety, Department of Municipal Affairs spokesperson Krista Higdon said the department worked with the Association of Municipal Administrators and the NSFM to better understand the impact on municipal election planning.
She added the department will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves.
This situation could very well evolve into an overwhelming second wave of virus transmission, new cases, community spread, hospitalizations, and deaths.
It could also continue as it is now, with new cases in the single digits, and areas like the Eastern Zone – taking in Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia – going weeks without any cases.
And hopefully, it does continue to peter-out, but given the fact that the province will be more open this summer than it’s been since March, more people will be moving around more often, more Nova Scotians will gather in larger groups more frequently, and more people will be having closer contact, it is very possible the rates of infection will rise after or during the summer.
While it is impossible to foresee exactly what will happen by the fall, it will be almost impossible to hold a municipal election if the second wave dwarfs the first.