Fixed election date in the N.W.T.:
What does it mean, and why?

By Donna Lee
CBC Online News | Updated September 25, 2007


Autumn in the Northwest Territories marks a turning point: kids go back to school, vacationers return from the lake, hunting season starts, and people go out on the land to stock up on food and wood for the cold winter ahead.

Starting in 2007, residents in the territory will also begin to associate autumn with door-knocking candidates, piles of pamphlets and signs at every corner, beseeching them to vote for the smiling mugs shown on every one.

On Oct. 1, 2007, voters from Fort Smith to Tuktoyaktuk will hit the polls and choose 19 members of the legislative assembly, after the legislature decided in 2006 to hold a territorial election every four years on the first Monday in October, with campaigning to take place in September.

In the N.W.T., having a permanent date for an election was a practical matter. Simply put, voters and candidates did not want to hit the polls in the winter.

Prior to the 2007 vote, elections in the N.W.T. were held every four years starting from the return of writs from the last election date. The last election took place on Nov. 24, 2003. Past elections have been held in November, December, and even in March.

In his report on the 2003 territorial election, then-chief electoral officer David Hamilton wrote that if the existing election laws remained, the next vote would take place some time in December 2007.

"Conducting elections across the N.W.T. in the winter is not popular with electors, candidates or election officials," Hamilton wrote in the report.

"The current cycle of holding elections in the early winter conflicts with elections in municipalities across the N.W.T. This causes confusion among the voters as there are elections going on at the same time for mayors, councillors and MLAs."

Hamilton wrote that by having a "permanent election day," everyone — from Elections N.W.T. staff to candidates to voters — has a sufficient and equal amount of time to prepare for each election.

The territorial government agreed: it replaced its existing election legislation with a new Elections and Plebiscites Act, which came into force Jan. 7, 2007, and includes legislation on a permanent date.

"In the end, I think the members decided to take the advice of the chief electoral officer — who'd run many, many elections in the Northwest Territories — and October … seemed to make the most sense, although it certainly isn't perfect," Tim Mercer, the territory's legislative clerk, told CBC News in an interview.

The timing isn't perfect because candidates may have a hard time catching up to voters like Gabriel Lafferty of Fort Resolution, N.W.T. He has been at home only a few times in September, in between fishing and moose hunting trips.

"September's the best," Lafferty told CBC News in an interview. "The moose are fat and stuff … so that's the time of the year to go out for moose and buffalo."

In between chopping wood, hunting for moose, buffalo and caribou, opening hunting camps and fixing up homes for the winter, there's little time to think about an election.

But every season presents its own challenges, the legislative assembly's Mercer said. Even the summer doesn't work because many voters are on vacation or out at camp.

"Regardless of what time you pick — there's a spring hunt for geese and for beluga; there's considerations with ferries not operating at certain times of the year and ice bridges being out, the weather, cold, darkness for campaigning purposes [in the winter],� he said.

For his part, Gabriel Lafferty said he may be busy and hard to reach in September, but come Oct. 1, he'll be in Fort Resolution so he can cast his ballot.

The Northwest Territories is not the only jurisdiction that has introduced fixed dates for elections. The first Canadian legislation fixing election dates was adopted by British Columbia in 2001 and took effect for the 2005 poll. Newfoundland and Labrador's first fixed-date election is Oct. 9, 2007, while Ontario's first is Oct. 10, 2007, moved from Oct. 4 because of a conflict with a Jewish holiday.

Meanwhile, Parliament passed legislation in 2007 that set federal election dates for the third Monday of October every four years, with the first fixed-date vote to be held in 2009.

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