Nova Scotia

Democracy group quits contract with N.S. government on fall elections

Springtide, a non-partisan democracy advocate, has quit its contract with the Nova Scotia government for this fall's municipal elections. It says there's not enough time and COVID-19 is complicating matters.

Springtide says there's not enough time to ensure municipal elections will be inclusive, safe due to COVID-19

Mark Coffin, executive director of democracy group Springtide, says there's not enough time to make recommendations on Nova Scotia's October municipal elections, especially with COVID-19. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

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.

Town of Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, says the federation is aware of eight of 49 members that will be using paper ballots. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

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."

Transparency needed

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.

People wait in line to vote in a Democratic presidential primary election outside the Hamilton High School in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter has said physical distancing should be enforced at polling stations during the upcoming municipal elections in Nova Scotia. (Kamil Krzacynski/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

MORE TOP STORIES

Corrections

  • 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

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now