Municipal election to go ahead

Councillors question decision, ponder challenge of campaigning

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
May 20 2020

SHERBROOKE – Running a municipal election campaign in the midst of a global pandemic will be “an experience,” “an adventure,” and even “weird,” according to some councillors from mainland Nova Scotia’s easternmost, rural ridings. What it won’t be is easy.

In separate interviews, David Hendsbee (councillor for HRM’s Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore), Michael Mosher (warden of the District of St. Mary’s), and Vernon Pitts (warden of the District of Guysborough) told The Journal they question the provincial government’s decision last week to proceed with a fall ballot.

While they agree the province is lawfully obliged to set election schedules, they prefer it heed the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities’ advice last month to postpone the process until the need for social distancing protocols passes.

“It’s going to be a weird campaign,” Hendsbee said. “We’re going to have to rely on our literature and our signs more than ever. And it all depends on what kind of social media presence we are allowed to have.”

Said Mosher, “This is going to be an adventure. How is this going to work? We really do count on the door-to-door campaigning. The actual personal element is how it’s been done. And people kind of expect that.”

Added Pitts, “It’s going to be a learning experience. This is uncharted territory. How are we going to vote? Is it going to be electronic? Is it going to be polling stations? These are serious concerns.”

In an April 7 letter to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Chuck Porter, Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities President Pam Mood said, “The province is currently under a State of Emergency, and municipalities are doing their best to carry on with usual business in these extraordinary times.

“But as current cancellations push further out into the summer, the NSFM Board of Directors has come to question whether Nova Scotia will be able to uphold a fair and democratic election on October 17,” noting, “To prepare for an election under these conditions will increase the already considerable operational burden on municipal staff across the province.”

On May 13, in a letter to Mood, Porter confirmed the Province has greenlit the fall vote: “This is an unprecedented time, and now more than ever, it is critical that the democratic rights of citizens are preserved and respected. We are aware of a number of municipalities with vacancies on council who are holding off on filling those vacancies pending the October election. If we delay elections. . .there will be thousands of Nova Scotians who will not have a representative at the table when those councils make important decisions about the future of their communities.”

He urged municipalities to “explore the various options afforded by the [Municipalities] Act to ensure a safe election,” including: “Use the provincial and federal voting lists available through Elections Nova Scotia rather than conducting door-to-door enumeration. . .Use alternative voting methods [mail, telephone, or computer] to paper ballots. . .[Limit] the number of electors in a polling station at one time. . .Encourage candidates to use signs, printed materials, telephone, social media, or virtual options to engage with constituents rather than canvassing door-to-door.”

But Hendsbee, Mosher and Pitts – each of whom have served multiple terms in office – say the prescribed options don’t fully appreciate the facts of rural governance.

“You never stop campaigning,” Hendsbee said, “but normally, you try to take advantage of what I call the barbecue circuit – community picnics and church suppers and that stuff. That’s going to be very difficult now when none of that is happening.”

Said Mosher, “This is the way it has always been, and with the large majority of elder residents here, people don’t like to change. And this is a time of change. We’re going to have to work with what we are given.”

Added Pitts, “Oh my God, it’s all tea, pie, biscuits, cinnamon loafs. You know, when you’re campaigning, you usually put on a couple of pounds. We’re so rural here. Our center of commerce is the shire town of Guysborough.”

The three officials are even more concerned about the voting process in a part of the province where spotty, or even non-existent, internet service is a reality of life.

“I’m worried about rural areas where they don’t have adequate internet,” Hendsbee said. “In some cases, this decision [by the Province] might actually lead to lower voter turnout.” Indeed, Mosher and Pitts point out that facility with modern telecommunications is far from a given in the 5,300 square kilometers of Guysborough County they, and their municipal colleagues, represent.

“You want poor internet, come and visit me some time,” Pitts said. “I live in Lundy, between Guysborough and Larry’s River. I can’t even have a cell phone at home because it doesn’t work. If I go up the road a couple of hundred metres, then, sure.”

Pitts echoed at least some of his peers’ sentiments, suggesting, “If the reason for calling the election is that there are thousands of people throughout the province who don’t have representation at this time due to lack of a member in a municipal unit. . .then do byelections. If that goes well, then do a municipal one.”

For better or worse, Hendsbee, Mosher and Pitts say they’re ready to move forward, though the political futures of two of them remain unclear. Neither Mosher nor Pitts have actually declared their intentions to run this year. For his part, Pitts said, “Stay tuned.”