Expert on timing of N.S. fixed election dates: ‘I can’t imagine who would advise that’

Click to play video: 'Educators worry fixed summer elections in N.S. will hamper student engagement'
Educators worry fixed summer elections in N.S. will hamper student engagement
Teachers and students in Nova Scotia say the province and its proposal to set fixed election dates in July robs youth of the opportunity to learn and engage with the electoral process. Jesse Thomas reports – Oct 18, 2021

Nova Scotia has been the only jurisdiction in Canada without fixed election dates, and sometimes premiers get the timing of an election wrong, according to the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Lori Turnbull said being able to call an election without having fixed dates is a tool for the premier “with no democratic legitimacy to it” at all.

This is why she was pleased when the Progressive Conservatives introduced legislation last week that will establish fixed dates for general elections in Nova Scotia.

Read more: N.S. joining rest of Canada in moving to fixed election dates, July 2025 targeted

“I think it’s good for the voters to kind of know when things are coming.” Turnbull said.

However, the fact that amendments to Nova Scotia’s Elections Act will set July 15, 2025, as the date of the next general election is not a positive one, she added.

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This means that future elections will take place on the third Tuesday of July every four years.

“Having them fixed in the summer is not usually positive for voter turnout. … No other province or territory have fixed summer elections. It’s asking people to lean into this in July. I can’t imagine who would advise that from a political science perspective,” Turnbull said.

Seven provinces and territories have fixed election dates in October.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia throne speech pledges reforms to health care system, fixed election date

She said fixed election dates will give the elections office the ability to plan better and to prepare for unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic.

It can also stabilize voter turnout.

Impact of the decision on students

For Students Nova Scotia, a non-partisan advocacy group that represents Nova Scotia’s post-secondary students, having fixed election dates in the summer poses unique barriers and challenges to students.

The executive director for Students N.S., Lydia Houck, said secondary students are much more likely to be first-time voters and a lot of them come to Nova Scotia from other provinces.

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“There’s more confusion around where your permanent address might be,” Houck said.

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This is why throughout the school year, on-campus programming and supports have been critical in helping ensure students are participating in democracy.

Another concern for the group is the fact that the province has a high interprovincial migration and mobility.

Houck said a lot of students come from outside of the province to study, “which means that in the case of a summer election date, those students likely wouldn’t be in the province, even though they live here for upwards of two-thirds of the year.”

As a result, fixed election dates in the summer would make these students ineligible to vote or they would have to vote by mail-in ballot, “which is one of the highest barrier methods,” according to Houck.

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READ MORE: NDP calls for inquiry into limited polling stations and long waits on election night

“For those reasons, I think a fixed summer election date would probably disenfranchise a huge swath of the student population from voting and moving forward.”

Six graders might also be missing a “real golden opportunity” to learn about elections if they were to happen in the summer, said Grade 6 teacher Carly Sutherland.

She said that elections are not something that’s easily taught from a textbook, and students are more likely to engage when it’s something happening in real-time.

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“When it happens during the school year, we can really get involved in the issues, and in my particular class, the students … watch the debates. They examine the platforms of the candidates on issues that were of concern to them, and they were very, very excited to participate,” Sutherland said.

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It is part of the Grade 6 curriculum to teach students to take age-appropriate actions to be active global citizens.

“Children don’t want to read about elections in a textbook. They want to see them actually happening and the impact of democracy happening in real-time,” Sutherland said.

Fixed election dates aren’t binding

Turnbull said nothing about having fixed election dates prevents a premier or a prime minister from requesting an early election. An example of that would be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s early election call.

“I think some people resented Trudeau’s early election call because they felt he wanted his majority and we were being pulled into trying to give it to him,” she said.

So even though fixed election dates are not binding, one of the good things about having them is that if a premier or prime minister calls for an early election is that the leaders will be held accountable.

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