The provincial election campaign is in full swing in Nova Scotia and, at this point, it looks as though there could be a change in government. Pollsters are not always right, of course, and the campaign is not over yet, but the Liberal Party appears to have a commanding lead.
This election has particular significance for at least a few reasons. First, no matter how the votes add up, this election might well go down in history as a referendum on the province’s first experience with an NDP government. As well, it is the first election to use the new electoral boundaries, which were established following a controversial redistribution process that reduced the legislature by one seat overall and eliminated the province’s four protected constituencies for Acadian and African Nova Scotians. And finally, for the first time ever, Nova Scotians will have the opportunity to cast their ballots on almost any day during the campaign.
Continuous polling means that electors can vote via write-in ballot on any day except for Sundays, up until five days before the “official” election day on Oct. 8. Here’s how it works: You write the name of either your preferred candidate or the registered party you want to support. That piece of paper goes into an envelope, which then goes into a larger envelope with the name of your electoral district on it. You can drop this off at a returning office in any electoral district in the province. The write-in ballots cast throughout the campaign will be delivered to their appropriate electoral districts to be counted on election night.
The objective is to make voting as convenient and accessible as possible so that more Nova Scotians will cast ballots. Turnout in the 2009 provincial election was only 58 per cent, down from 60 per cent in 2006 and 66 per cent in 2003. In an effort to turn this trend around, Elections Nova Scotia is pursuing a number of strategies to get out the vote in 2013. In addition to the continuous polls, Elections Nova Scotia is allowing voters to vote for their home ridings in other ridings, which means people can leave work to vote without having to go all the way back home to cast their ballots. They can just vote at the nearest returning office. There will be write-in teams going to hospitals, long term care facilities and seniors’ residences, and voting booths will be set up at university campuses. While most of these things were happening in other provinces already, the continuous polls are a provincial first in Canada.
There is evidence to suggest that enhanced accessibility can boost voter turnout. In a paper written for Elections Canada in 2007, Blais, Dobrzynska and Loewen reported that as the convenience of voting increases, so do participation rates – but the positive effect is modest.
Continuous polling is a curious thing in the sense that it invites voters to cast ballots before all of the evidence is in. Why would a voter vote before the campaign is over, while party leaders and candidates are still explaining themselves and their plans for the province? Might a mid-campaign vote be an attractive option only for a party loyalist whose vote is unlikely to change no matter what happens in the campaign? The study mentioned above found that those who vote early in advance polls tend to be engaged with politics and political parties. If it turns out to be the case that engaged voters are the ones to take advantage of continuous polling in Nova Scotia, it might be that continuous polling does not increase turnout overall, but simply spreads it out over a longer period. These folks would have voted anyway.
Elections Nova Scotia is hoping to woo the young vote in particular, as this is the demographic category with the worst voter turnout record. Given the large number of university students in the province, it could be that setting up voting booths on campuses might be at least as effective as continuous polling at improving turnout.
The truth is that continuous polling is relatively rare, so we haven’t had much opportunity to test its capacity to increase turnout. The election in Nova Scotia will provide such an opportunity and, if there is an increase in voter turnout that can be attributed to continuous polls, other jurisdictions might consider following Nova Scotia’s lead.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University.