Nova Scotia

Watchdog asked to weigh in on Elections Act concerns

Nova Scotia's privacy watchdog has been asked by the premier's office to explain why she is raising a red flag about a new law that could violate the privacy of voters.

Nova Scotia's privacy watchdog has been asked by the premier's office to explain why she is raising a red flag about a new law that could violate the privacy of voters.

Dulcie McCallum, the province's protection of privacy review officer, said she was asked for her opinion Wednesday, the day before the province's new Elections Act became law and the legislature wrapped up its spring session.

Under the act, the province's chief electoral officer is required to give political parties regular reports that include the name of each voter, their address, the year they were born and whether they cast a ballot in the most recent election.

Before the act became law, political parties were given lists with the names and addresses of voters, but that was only done before elections.

McCallum said she's concerned about the distribution of that information between elections and the fact that parties will soon have access to a new piece of personal information: year of birth.

The independent ombudsman said she doesn't believe Nova Scotians will be comfortable allowing parties to regularly compile lists that have each voter's year of birth attached to their name, address and voting rate.

NDP Premier Darrell Dexter has said the birth year data will be used to send targeted information to groups of people who don't normally vote. He cited young people in particular.

"It is useful in terms of trying to engage voters," he said outside the legislature.

Opposition warns of sinister uses

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil has suggested the information could be used by parties to aim their campaign literature at certain age groups or, in a more sinister vein, it could be used to determine individual voting patterns.

McCallum said she supports the government's bid to increase voter turnout.

"But I think there's other ways of achieving those goals without [potentially] breaching people's privacy," she said in an interview Thursday.

The meeting with the premier's staff is significant because the premier and his justice minister continued to insist Thursday that they had no concerns about Bill 59, which passed third reading late in the day.

"It matters little to me if someone knows what year I'm born in," said Justice Minister Ross Landry. "From my perspective, and I stand to be corrected, I don't see it any differently than knowing the names of people who voted."

He said he was prepared to listen to anyone who had concerns about the legislation, but he insisted there was no point in delaying passage of the bill.

Dexter agreed.

"I'm not really concerned about it," he said, noting that election officials in Quebec already provide parties with each voter's name, address, date of birth and sex.

Government needs clear rationale: privacy watchdog

However, Quebec's elections act goes on to say that the list contains a cautionary note that states penalties apply to those who used the data for purposes unrelated to elections.

McCallum said that is the real litmus test. She said the government needs a clear rationale to explain why the information is needed between elections.

Earlier in the day, McNeil told the legislature that the NDP government wants Nova Scotians "to give up personal information so that the [government] can find a way to manipulate the elections in this province."

"It's not the business of the government or any party what year I was born," he said before the government used its majority to push the bill through the house.

"It's an invasion of privacy. I have yet to figure out why the government wants to infringe on the rights of Nova Scotians and dig into their private affairs."