Municipalities encourage advance voting as electronic and telephone options kick off this week

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Many Nova Scotia voters will cast their first telephone and online ballots in the 2020 municipal elections, using voter information cards with personal pin numbers sent out by mail. Advance voting starts this week, and as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, political scientists are watching elections closely to see how COVID-19 impacts voter habits, turnout and decisions.

Some municipalities are encouraging residents to vote early in their local elections in order to avoid large crowds at polling stations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advance polling begins this week by phone and online in many jurisdictions, including the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and Municipality of the County of Inverness, which kick off voting on Tuesday.

“With all the public safety measures in place we’re really encouraging people to consider the online and phone-in option because they can do those from the comfort of their home where there is no COVID risk,” said HRM spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray.

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Information on how to vote by phone or online can be found on the voter information cards mailed out by local governments in the past two weeks. There’s also a voter helpline on those cards, and on municipal government websites, if residents have any questions on how the new methods work.

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In the HRM, Spray said she hopes the new voting options will attract a more diverse demographic and increase voter turnout.

She added that mobile polling stations with extra sanitization protocols will be sent to several long-term care homes to ensure those vulnerable residents are able to cast their ballots.

Click to play video 'Running for election in a pandemic' Running for election in a pandemic
Running for election in a pandemic

Read more: Halifax sends out voter information letter, releases municipal election dates

Both telephone and electronic voting options will continue in future HRM elections. If it works this year, returning officer for Inverness Dernie Gillis said those options will stay in his municipality as well.

“The whole premise was to keep the number of people home as opposed to having them out and around,” Gillis told Global News.

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“We can’t keep doing things the way we always did it… I don’t think we’d be ready to do it totally electronically yet, but in the future we are, so we may as well be part of it.”

Read more: TikTok star throws wrench in HRM mayoral race

Gillis said putting together a municipal election during the pandemic has “probably tripled the amount of work,” between training election day workers on sanitization protocols, staffing the new voter help phone lines, ensuring in-person kiosks have enough space for distancing, and more.

“Putting this together into one package has really been a challenge, and the way we’re getting through it, I can see that it’s working,” he said.

Political scientists will be watching how municipal, provincial and federal elections unfold during the pandemic, as they study how it impacts voting methods, voter turnouts and who voters actually elect.

Click to play video 'Halifax mayoral candidates participate in virtual debate' Halifax mayoral candidates participate in virtual debate
Halifax mayoral candidates participate in virtual debate

Dalhousie University political science professor Lori Turnbull said COVID-19 is an experiment in how candidates leverage social media and other unconventional campaigning methods to woo prospective voters.

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She also said the pandemic may steer voters towards incumbents, who have a proven track record of success.

“Is this a time — given the complexities and the urgency and seriousness of the situation — does that create a bit more of a disadvantage for a candidate who’s new, and asking for a mandate when there’s no track record to go on?” she asked.

For more information on advance voting options, visit your municipal website.