On the heels of the 2017 Nova Scotia provincial election, there have been many discussions surrounding compulsory voting legislation and fixed election dates. Why? It is estimated that voter turnout for the past election reached a historic all-time low with fewer than 54% of eligible Nova Scotians showing up to the polls. Nova Scotia tends to have a low voter turnout at provincial elections with the average turnout being around 60% in the more recent years. Despite efforts to increase voter turnout such as extending the time period for advanced polls and ensuring all polling stations were accessible by wheelchair, the 2017 election continued on the trend of declining voter turnout in Nova Scotia.
In the 2015 federal election, Nova Scotia saw a high voter turnout with just over 70% of Nova Scotians heading to the polls, an increase from the 61% of Nova Scotians who voted in the 2011 federal election. Voter turnout tends to be lower in Nova Scotia provincial elections in comparison to their federal counterpart. However with the large increase in voter participation during the 2015 federal election, it is disappointing that the provincial election did not continue on this momentum. These feelings of disappointment have led many Nova Scotians to discuss various ways we can increase voter turnout in future elections.
In the pursuit of increased accessibility, an option to consider when looking at increasing voter turnout is online voting. In terms of increasing access to voting, exploring avenues of technology would allow voters to not even have to leave their home to exercise their democratic right. The option of online voting would allow voters to vote at anytime throughout the day, reduce wait times at polling stations, and help better serve those who are unable to travel to their local poll due to disability, illness, or location. This method is also very appealing to voters under the age of 30 as they are comfortable and avid users of technology. The biggest setback to online voting is the potential security and fraud risk, which can lead to questions of confidence in the system. Despite the potential risks, online voting has the potential to increase voter turnout by drastically increasing accessibility.
Fixed election dates?
Perhaps one of the most popular solutions to increasing voter turnout in future elections is to implement fixed election dates. Currently, Nova Scotia is the only province in Canada without some form of fixed election date legislation. Unfixed election dates restrict the accessibility of voting for populations such as post-secondary students, who during the spring are in the midst of exams, moving, or are out of province for the intersession period. Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, proposes a fixed election date in the third week of October citing it as the most accessible day for an election period due to factors like weather and school schedules. While there is no guarantee that fixed election dates would increase voter turnout, it would certainly reduce barriers to accessibility.
There are also many Nova Scotians who believe that low voter turnout is not primarily a problem of accessibility but rather of apathy. One way of encouraging people to vote is through compulsory voting legislation that penalizes eligible voters who fail to vote. In Australia, where failing to vote results in a fine, elections tend to have some of the highest voter turnout rates in the world. The idea of compulsory voting in Canada is an option that has received pushback from many citizens as it is seen to remove the choice aspect of voting. Many Canadians, including Nova Scotians, choose not to vote due to political reasons rather than issues of accessibility. Although there are many opponents to compulsory voting, the idea of increasing voter turnout by fighting voter apathy is intriguing and deserves further investigation.
Online voting, fixed election dates, and compulsory voting are just a few of the many proposed solutions to increasing voter turnout and engagement in Nova Scotia. There is also a case to be made for lowering the voting age to 16 and introducing curriculum back into schools about elections and the importance of voting. While a complete overhaul of the electoral system is unlikely, it is important that the issue of lower voter turnout be addressed. Rather than being strictly a problem of apathy or accessibility, the solution to low voter turnout is more complex and exists somewhere between the two. One positive thing that comes from the historically low voter turnout in the 2017 Nova Scotia provincial election is the discussions surrounding voter participation. A topic that, let’s face it, is not the typical hot button issue discussed in post-election coverage.