Nova Scotia Elections: Fairness and Impartiality

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Remarks of Michael V. Coyle*, Chair of the Nova Scotia Election Commission, on the
occasion of the first inauguration of returning officer and assistant returning officers under the new Elections Act at Province House, Halifax, Nova Scotia, January 23, 2013:

Back in 1924, Lord Chief Justice Hewart had these words to say in a case before
the British House of Lords:
“It is not merely of some importance, but it is of fundamental importance that
justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen
to be done.”
Of course, His Lordship meant that as a reminder to judges that it is not sufficient
that their decisions be fair and impartial. Rather, the public’s faith and trust in the
judicial system requires that the public must come away from the Court having
seen for themselves that it was fair and impartial. Appearances, in other words,
matter very much.
It is the same with elections.
It is not sufficient that election officals conduct themselves in a fair and impartial
manner. The public’s trust in the integrity of our democratic electoral process
requires that the work of election officials is, to borrow Viscount Hewart’s words,
“manifestly and undoubtedly” seen to be fair and impartial.
That, in a nutshell, is why this is such an historic occasion.
You have been appointed, for the first time in our Province’s history, as Returning
Officers and Assistant Returning Officers, by the Chief Electoral Officer, not by
the Government of the day.
That does not mean, of course, that previous returning officers (or those of you
who have now been re-appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer) were anything
less than fair or impartial.
It simply means that candidates for office, their campaign teams, the political
parties and, most importantly, the public in the communities you serve, can now
have even greater confidence in your integrity and impartiality as returning
officers. It brings a whole new level of prestige and distinction to the merit-based
appointments that we are celebrating today.
It has been my privilege to have served on the Nova Scotia Election Commission
for most of the past 30 years. Over that time, it was suggested, every once in a
while, that maybe our returning officers should be appointed by some body other
than the Provincial Cabinet, just to enhance the appearance of the returning
officers’ impartiality.
Suffice to say, that suggestion was not met with any particular enthusiasm over
the years, until 2011, when the Elections Act was revised from top to bottom by
the House of Assembly.
As it now stands, Nova Scotia has an up-to-date Elections Act that, in many
important ways, is the envy of elections officials all across this country.
 The Chief Electoral Officer now reports directly to the Legislature, as an
Officer of the House of Assembly.
 Elections Nova Scotia is now established as an independent, professional
elections organization whose budget is approved directly by the
Legislature.
 Regulations covering everything from political contributions to the
registration of our political parties, which were once made by Cabinet, are
now enshrined in the Elections Act itself.
More importantly, voters in Nova Scotia now have twelve ways they can choose
from when exercising their democratic franchise. Cumbersome processes that
once were obstacles to the exercise of the vote, and particularly so for disabled
voters, have been eliminated or streamlined. Additional voting opportunities have
been created.
And, let me assure you, Returning Officers were consulted – and you were
listened to – when the Act was being revised. Many of the improvements came
directly from your collective wisdom and experience as our most important frontline
election officials.
At the same time, Elections Nova Scotia has made tremendous strides in
enhancing the quality and availability of training for elections officials from across
the province.
The mapping services and database management expertise at Elections Nova
Scotia are now second to none in this country and are the envy of many electoral
organizations, both inside Canada and well beyond our borders.
Long-needed improvements to the remuneration for elections officials that
recognize their increased duties and responsibilities have now been put in place
and are ready to go for the next election.
Most recently, I am particularly pleased to say, Elections Nova Scotia has
entered into a formal protocol with the Department of Education and each one of
the School Boards in the Province for the use of schools as polling locations
during elections. Not only does this go an awfully long way towards providing
truly accessible polling places for many disabled Nova Scotians, but it provides a
Michael V. Coyle, Chair of the Nova Scotia Election Commission
January 23, 2013
wonderful educational opportunity for our young people to experience democracy
in action at first hand.
Using schools as polling places may seem like small potatoes to some; it’s just
common sense, after all. But I know I don’t have to tell anyone in this room what
a huge benefit that will be in communities throughout Nova Scotia, come the next
election. This achievement is, I am told, unique in Canada and it will serve as a
benchmark for others across the nation to follow.
Of course, no one is saying that our Elections Act or our electoral procedures are
now perfect. But I can say, with every confidence, that great and important
progress is being made right here in Nova Scotia.
Your historic appointments today are very much part of that progress.

*As well as being Chair of the Nova Scotia Election Commission, Michael  Coyle is a Barrister, Arbitrator and Mediator based in Kentville, Nova Scotia.

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