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Elections Tinkering

Are the NS NDP's election reforms enough, and can they increase voter turnout?

by Steve Caines

Amending the Elections Act
Amending the Elections Act
The Real Outsiders - Samara's 2011 Report
The Real Outsiders - Samara's 2011 Report

For at least two reasons, 2009 was a new landmark in Nova Scotian electoral politics.

First, the NS New Democratic Party was elected as the government, for the first time in provincial history. But it was also the year of the lowest voter turnout on record for a Nova Scotia general election: 57.9% (Elections Nova Scotia‘s recapitulation data goes back to 1933). Forty-two percent of eligible Nova Scotians didn’t vote in the 2009 election.

Nova Scotia isn’t different from other provinces in this respect; participation in elections country-wide has been on the decline for decades. Lots of research has been done on why voter participation is on the downturn, and what might be done to bring it back up.              

The NDP's reforms      

The NS NDP believes it has part of the remedy. Since early 2011, the government has moved forward with various election-related reforms. These include changes to the provincial Elections Act and the Municipal Elections Act, and also a province-wide review of electoral district boundaries.      

"The new Elections Act modernizes and simplifies the elections process and will bring us into the 21st Century," says Tara Walsh, Communications Advisor with the NS Justice Department. “[The reformed provincial Elections Act] has many benefits, but one highlight is providing increased opportunities for people to vote through the use of a continuous poll, before advance polls, more extensive use of mobile polls and write-in ballots. The aim of these changes is to improve voter turnout.”

The Elections Act reforms, which became effective on January 1st of this year, also include increasing youth education about elections and the election process. Elections Nova Scotia will now be able to develop and distribute educational / curriculum material to NS schools.

Changes to the Municipal Elections Act allow university students to vote in municipal elections where they live, instead of just from their potentially far-away permanent residences. They will still need to have three months of residency in the municipality before they are eligible to vote. The municipal changes allow for more voting methods as well, including voting over the internet.

The provincial government is also currently completing a 10-year review of electoral district boundaries. The NDP have accepted a preliminary suggestion that all of Nova Scotia’s 52 electoral districts should be roughly equalized by number of people. Boundaries would be redrawn by population so that no electoral district is larger or smaller than 25% of the average.

This potential decision has drawn criticism from representatives of some existing districts, including Preston and three Acadian areas. They are concerned that an expansion of electoral boundaries in their areas will reduce their percentage of the vote, and result in fewer minority groups gaining representation in the House of Assembly. 

Getting to the bottom of declining voter turnout            

While the government focuses primarily on ease of voting and expanded education to boost voter participation levels, Raymond Taavel, an organizer with the Nova Scotia Chapter of Fair Vote Canada, makes the case that voter participation is not really about ease of voting.

“In the HRM Municipal 2008 election we had the opportunity to cast votes through more advanced polling opportunities (more days, increased hours). The result? Quite a few more people took advantage of the convenience, however, after all was said and done, there was no significant increase in overall voter turnout. This was mirrored in the May 2010 Federal election too. Many people took advantage of the convenience of advanced polling, but overall there was no increase in voter turnout” says Taavel.

Many studies, including a 2011 survey and report by research group Samara, suggest that the reasons more and more people are tuning out during elections have to do with more fundamental issues: the idea that the electoral system is dysfunctional, a growing lack of faith in the political system to provide effective representation, and an accompanying basic sentiment that a person’s vote just doesn’t make a difference.

Derek Simon (also an organizer with Fair Vote NS) says, “While changes that make it simpler for Nova Scotians to vote in elections are positive, experience has shown that they are unlikely to do anything to boost voter turnout while we still use a voting system that denies adequate representation to so many voters.” 

“People aren't likely to turn out to vote if their vote doesn't count, regardless of how easy the government makes voting,” says Simon. “We've seen this in other provinces that changed voting rules, as well.”       

Proportional representation: The ‘elephant in the voting booth’            

For Fair Vote NS, the introduction of a system of proportional representation (PR) is the main election reform they want to see implemented.  The idea of PR is simple enough: it says that the proportion of the seats a party gets should be the same as the proportion of the vote they receive. By making results more proportional to the overall vote, they say, it would make things more representative.

As far as voter turnout goes, it is hard to predict if a PR system would initiate an increase. There is evidence both for and against such a claim. Countries that use PR do have a higher average voter turnout than those that do not. But many that use it still suffer from declining voter participation levels. What PR really aims to do, though, is make those votes that are cast count further towards building a representative government.  

Taavel, Simon and Fair Vote support a multipronged approach. “Combined, greater voting accessibility and a voting system that actually reflected the will of its citizens would have a much better chance of increased participation,” says Taavel. “The Dexter government should be applauded for its efforts… However… the initiatives [those specific to the Elections Act changes] are basic, 'no-brainer' changes... that a) should not have taken a quarter century to be realized, b) amount to nothing more than a 'tweak' to an intrinsically flawed electoral system, and c) dance around the 'big elephant in the voting booth' - proportional representation.”

The NDP and Proportional Representation         

The provincial NDP though, at least at present, aren’t pursuing any broader change like the one Fair Vote NS supports. “Government has not proposed changes to Nova Scotia’s current system of representation and there are no plans to do so”, said Walsh, when asked if the government would support proportional representation. That’s in contrast to the federal NDP’s position, which regularly states at least nominal support for PR.   
“Our provincial government needs to be pushed further…the winner-take-all first-past-the-post system distorts regional representation and marginalizes the diversity of voices that should be at the governing table", says Taavel. “Increased voter participation, broader diversity and greater equality can be better achieved through proportional representation.”

Whether or not the NS NDPs electoral changes will increase voter turnout is one thing. For Fair Vote NS at least, the issue of accurate representation for those who do vote is another, and is still left unaddressed in the province.

Steve Caines lives in Nova Scotia.

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Topics: Governance
1147 words



Proportional representation is still useless if we elect people once every 4 years. The technology and news media allow people to interact with the political process more frequently. Most people would prefer less centralized power and more empowerment of communities in all respects, not just municipal.

Still a long way to go for Nova Scotia before we hit the 21st century.



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