Democracy group quits contract with N.S. government on fall elections
Springtide says there's not enough time to ensure municipal elections will be inclusive, safe due to COVID-19
Springtide, the organization hired to encourage candidate and voter participation in Nova Scotia's general municipal elections this fall, quit its contract saying it may be impossible to hold safe and fair elections during the pandemic.
Municipal politicians and administrators have previously called for a delay in the elections scheduled for October, saying there's not enough time to prepare because of COVID-19.
The minister of municipal affairs has dismissed those concerns, saying people can vote by telephone or on the internet.
Mark Coffin, executive director of Springtide, said one of the problems is that roughly 50 municipalities are trying to figure out how to ensure safety and fairness and that will be especially challenging for candidates and voters traditionally underrepresented in elections.
"Some people think the municipal elections are managed by Elections Nova Scotia. That's not the case," he told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton.
"If it were the case, there'd be a lot more resources available, so we just took a step back and said, 'It's really hard for us in good faith to encourage people to participate in an election when the two levels of government that share responsibility for its administration can't agree on whether it can be done safely and fairly.'"
One of the priorities in the government contract with Springtide, a Halifax-based non-partisan charity that promotes democracy, was to ensure people who are Black, Indigenous, female or who have disabilities are encouraged to participate in the elections, Coffin said.
However, those are the same people who have been most affected by the pandemic, he said, and rural and low-income voters are least likely to be able to vote by phone or online.
Springtide was also supposed to create online resources for candidates on running an appropriate campaign that includes physical distancing rules.
Coffin said one of the main concerns arose when he heard a CBC News report at the end of May in which Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, said provincial officials were focused on the economy and had not yet started looking into the question of holding elections in the fall.
That leaves little time to address issues with candidates and officials in municipalities that have never held entirely online elections, said Coffin.
"I can't say what might go wrong, but it's hard to imagine everything going right," he said.
"If we could see a plan that says here's how people are going to be kept safe, here's how we're going to ensure everybody who needs a ballot gets a ballot, that would be something that we'd be interested in pushing everybody towards."
In addition, Coffin said, it appears there's only one company in Nova Scotia being considered to host electronic voting and that requires trust.
"We asked the department for information about how many municipalities actually have online voting, [but] we don't know, they don't track this information because there's no reporting," he said.
"You need transparency to have a fair election."
The province has struck a working group with public health, Municipal Affairs, the association of municipal administrators and the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities to come up with guidelines on how to ensure safe and fair elections.
Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood, president of the federation, said that work is ongoing and the contract dispute is between Springtide and the province.
"As far as we're concerned, we're in full mode with an election planned in October and we're just trying to make sure that that's done in the most democratic and safe manner," she said.
Mood downplayed the difference of opinion between the province and the federation, saying a majority of members had wanted a delay when polled, but will comply with the minister's decision.
"We're not screaming at the province to not hold the elections," she said. "We gave them the numbers. We gave them our reasoning.
"They've advised that the election will take place and right now we're simply in the mode that we just have to make sure that it's done safely."
Minister declines interview
Mood said the pandemic could impact the elections and officials are in talks to have the province cover the cost if they are delayed.
In an email, the Department of Municipal Affairs declined an interview request with the minister, Chuck Porter.
The department said its working group will ensure municipal elections are safe for everyone and it encouraged municipalities to continue preparing for fall elections.
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- An earlier version of this story said Springtide was hired to advise and make recommendations to the provincial government. In fact, Springtide was hired to run the programs.Jun 25, 2020 10:39 PM AT
With files from CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton