By Nancy Kelly
Changes are coming to a polling station near you on Oct. 8.
In December 2011, Nova Scotia’s House of Assembly passed the first major changes to the Elections Act in 25 years. Some of them were made to improve access to voting opportunities for electors, others to solidify Elections Nova Scotia’s arm’s length functioning from the elected officials of the legislature.
Change started at the top by making the Chief Electoral Office an independent officer of the House of Assembly and no longer tied to any political party. This also applies to the returning officers in each of Nova Scotia’s 51 ridings. Previously appointed to their positions, returning officers are now placed through standardized hiring practices.
“A lot of the changes are about taking politics out of the voting process and improving the democratic process,” explained Karl West, Returning Officer in District 35, Kings West.
The new Elections Act also contains a clear mandate to improve accessibility of electors to voting facilities, which West kept in mind when selecting the location of the returning office, located in the former NSLC location in Kingston.
“This place has been so busy for the past few weeks and I think, partly, because it has been easily accessible,” he said.
The mandate to improve voter accessibility has been furthered by the write-in ballot option, which allows for election staff to visit electors in their residences throughout the campaign and collect their votes. West said this initiative has been well received in Kings West. On Oct. 8, polls will also be located at area nursing homes and hospital facilities.
One of the biggest changes being debuted Oct. 8 is the physical layout of polling stations. In the past, a poll clerk and deputy returning officer (DRO) sat together at a specific poll for the duration of the day and assisted electors assigned to that poll through the voting process.
Under the amended regulations, the two positions will no longer be seated together. Instead, the poll clerk will register voters and direct them to DRO, who will be situated near the ballot box. In locations with multiple polls, all poll clerks will be seated together and be able to process all incoming voters, regardless of their polling station.
“Once the poll clerk registers them, they direct them to the DRO at the appropriate poll,” explained West.
He said candidates for the two positions have traditionally been nominated by the main opposing parties, which often made for an “interesting situation” on election day. He says separating the two functions should not only improve service at the polls, but further efforts to de-politicize the process of voting. Also for the first time, both positions will be remunerated at the same level in this election. In the past, the DRO was the higher paid of the two positions.
“That is also a big equalizer,” said West.
Logistics have also changed for agents who represent the candidates at the polls. Once seated at individual polls, there will now be one agent per candidate at a polling location. Their seating arrangements have also been altered by placing them together, in a separate location, away from the other poll staff.
In order to ensure compliance with the new rules, West plans to be on the move between the 22 voting locations on election day.
West indicated the number of changes made to the elections act, including the continuous voting initiative that allowed constituents to cast their vote at the returning office for the duration of the campaign, has made the Kings West location a “very busy place,” since the writ was dropped Sept. 7. By mid-day on Oct. 3, the final day of continuous voting, the office had seen 1,000 voters cast early ballots.