Only 55 per cent of eligible Nova Scotians cast ballots in this week’s provincial election, up only slightly from the all-time lowest turnout in 2017.
Elections Nova Scotia won’t be releasing a detailed breakdown of the demographics in each riding for several months. The agency has said 42 per cent of voters cast ballots through early voting options, the most popular being returning offices that were open daily during the campaign.
There was a range of participation within the province as well. Some adjoining electoral districts, such as Kings South, Kings North and Hants West, had virtually the same turnout. Others, including those within the Halifax Regional Municipality, varied.
The ridings with the highest voter turnout:
- Richmond: 71.43 per cent.
- Clare: 67.84 per cent.
- Argyle: 67.45 per cent.
- Guysborough Tracadie: 66.81 per cent.
- Chester St. Margarets: 62.46 per cent.
The ridings with the lowest voter turnout:
- Cole Harbour: 37.99 per cent.
- Dartmouth North: 46.13 per cent.
- Bedford South: 46.20 per cent.
- Halifax Atlantic: 47.28.
- Preston: 47.58 per cent.
Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration and an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, said she’d been bracing for an even lower overall showing because the beginning of the summer campaign seemed quiet.
But Turnbull said the outcome still means fewer than half of voters chose the party that now has a majority.
“If you only have 55 per cent of people voting, there are a lot of viewpoints and perspectives and experiences that are not part of the conversation around electoral politics and that’s a problem,” she said.
“Does that mean they’re not interested, they don’t feel included? They don’t feel that their lot is going to be any better in life depending on who forms government? And does this mean there is a disconnect between what happens in people’s real lives and the House of Assembly? Because if there is that disconnect, then that’s bad.”
The Progressive Conservatives captured 160,996 votes, 38.62 per cent. The second-place Liberals garnered about 7,900 fewer votes, with 36.72 of the total votes.
Turnout dropping for decades
Voter turnout in Nova Scotia wasn’t always so low. In the 2019 federal election, 69.4 per cent of eligible Nova Scotians had their say, which was more than the national average.
Provincially since 1960 — when turnout sat at 82 per cent — it has been declining. In an effort to curb that, the province introduced changes to the Elections Act to make voting more convenient. They included the write-in ballot, first introduced in 2003, as well as other early voting options like community and advance polls.
Turnbull sees the current turnout as a matter of interest and engagement, not access to ballots.
“More often people don’t vote because they’re checked out entirely. It’s not that you’re saying, ‘I like them all,’ or even ‘I hate them all.’ It’s not paying attention at all. From an accountability aspect, we have to ask questions about the inclusiveness of the conversation,” she said.
Though it’s not possible to know how many people considered voting this time around and opted not to cast ballots, Turnbull said the perception of the race — and the inevitability of the outcome — does impact who ends up weighing in.
“If people think the election could go either way, if there’s suspense to it, that will make people more inclined to vote. Whereas if it looks like the results are a foregone conclusion, that tends to suppress turnout,” she said, adding that early polls putting the Liberals in the lead may have left people assuming things would stay the same.
Typically, Turnbull said, older demographics are more likely to see voting as a civic duty and feel guilty if they don’t vote. She said research has shown that people who start voting at a young age are far more likely to continue voting through their lifetime.
In its final report on the 2017 election, Elections Nova Scotia found people aged 64-74 were most likely to vote and participation decreased considerably by age.
Nova Scotia remains the only province without fixed election dates, something premier-designate Tim Houston pledged to change soon during his first press conference Wednesday.
Turnbull is hopeful that knowing an election is coming will help people think ahead, consider the issues and make voting a part of their life.
“I think that’s a key to voter turnout overall,” she said. “If you’re asking yourself if you’re going to bother to vote, it’s much less likely that you will.”