For the first time in 18 years, Nova Scotia’s provincial election will be held in the summer.
Liberal Leader Iain Rankin called the election as premier on Saturday, with a vote date set for Aug. 17.
Traditionally, elections are held in the spring or fall for a couple of reasons, according to Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University.
“The spring or fall are when most voters are paying attention,” he said in an interview.
“Winter elections are logistically difficult – weather is very unpredictable – and summer elections are not common because voters are away or focused on other things. It’s not political season.”
While it’s generally assumed that off-season elections will have a lower voter turnout – and indeed, it may be “subdued” this time around, said Urbaniak – he said there are other variables that can counteract that.
“Is there a galvanizing issue? Are there controversial moments during the campaign? Have voters come to like or loathe particular party leaders?” he said.
Urbaniak said COVID-19 could be a factor.
“It won’t be a typical election campaign,” he said, noting that political leaders won’t be able to book large events and pack venues with supporters – though he does expect to see door-to-door campaigning.
‘It will appear opportunistic’
Rankin has enjoyed a profile advantage during the pandemic, becoming a familiar face to many Nova Scotians during the province’s regular COVID-19 briefings.
It’s possible that calling a summer election while still riding that wave of high visibility could be advantageous for the young premier, who came into power in February 2021 following the resignation of former Liberal premier Stephen McNeil.
“The calculation within Liberal ranks is there’s an advantage at this particular moment,” said Urbaniak.
Rankin had until spring of 2022 to call the election, so Urbaniak said calling it at a time when fewer voters will be engaged will raise some questions.
“Why not wait until the fall, acknowledging that summer is not election season, it’s not considered a time of year when voters’ attentions are preoccupied by political contests?” he said.
“It will appear opportunistic, and Iain Rankin is going to have to explain that.”
Nova Scotia is the only province without fixed election dates, a point of soreness for the opposition parties which haven’t had as much opportunity to prepare.
“The governing party will always enjoy tremendous advantages going into an election campaign because it has the cachet and the authority that comes with being government,” Urbaniak said, noting the governing Liberals have been making taxpayer-funded, campaign-style spending announcements in the weeks before the writ dropped.
“Having a fixed day gives the opposition a little more certainty too about what the time horizons are and how to pace themselves in nominating candidates and getting some of the logistics ready.”
However, Urbaniak also said having a locked-in election date can mean “dreadful” timing for an election. Had there been a fixed election date in the spring, Nova Scotians would have likely been heading to the polls in the throes of the third wave of COVID-19.
Previous summer election
Nova Scotia’s last summer election was held on Aug. 5, 2003.
Then-incumbent premier John Hamm was able to keep the Progressive Conservatives in power, but his majority government was reduced to a minority.
Urbaniak remembers it as a “quiet” campaign and said that going into the election, Hamm’s government had received “high marks” for its competency and management.
“So, that is a warning to the Liberals, at least to some extent,” he said. “That even if you’re getting reasonable marks on management on some of the major files, and even if you think a low-key campaign is to your advantage, you could still see a decline in support.”
Compared to more recent elections, the voter turnout for the 2003 election wasn’t particularly low, at just over 68 per cent.
However, it was a decline from the turnout at the previous three elections, which stood at 75.4 per cent in 1993, 69.5 per cent in 1998 and 68.1 per cent in 1999.
Improving voter turnout
Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said voter engagement and turnout could be a concern during summer elections – particularly as the province begins to bounce back after COVID-19.
“People are so excited to go do things because they’re finally free of COVID-19, because they’ve had their two vaccines, and so they may just not really get super engaged, people might not plan their summer around voting,” she said.
“You might not see people not as interested in the campaign, not listening as closely, and then ultimately not showing up.”
Turnbull said there is research to suggest that a lower voter turnout can benefit an incumbent, while other research suggests it could benefit an opposition party. But that all depends on the circumstances at the time, she said.
Taking note of Rankin’s profile advantage, she said less voter engagement could be an advantage for the governing Liberals, since the current premier is already in the spotlight.
“It could be that a low voter turnout and a low-key campaign doesn’t help the other parties elevate to the point where they’re getting as much exposure as they would need to be familiar to voters,” she said.
“But at the same time, you never know, right? A low voter turnout depends on which of those voters don’t show up.”
Turnbull said low voter turnouts could have implications for the perceived legitimacy of an election’s result.
She pointed to the fact that voter turnout for Nova Scotia elections has been trending downward in recent years, reaching an all-time low of less than 54 per cent in 2017.
“So, we’re not nailing it anyway,” she said. “And if we see lower than that, that’s not comfortable.”
Turnbull said there are a number of ways to improve voter turnout, including offering advance polls and improving accessibility to mail-in ballots.
She added that – despite COVID-19 throwing things “out of whack” – fixed election dates could help put parties on a similar playing field.
“It’s more fair to the administrators, it’s more fair across political parties in the sense that premiers have some deterrent against calling an election when it works for them … because, really, what is the democratic value of the government being able to time an election unilaterally?” she said.
“(Fixed election dates) are not the end of all the problems, but there’s a good argument for them.”