07/15/2015 11:01 EDT | Updated 07/15/2016 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia premier floats ranked voting system after weak byelection turnout

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's premier floated the idea of a ranked ballot voting system Wednesday as one possible method of encouraging voters after a dismal turnout in provincial byelections on Tuesday.

Stephen McNeil said the system — also favoured by federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — is an electoral reform he'll explore in light of a continuing downward spiral in voter turnout in the province.

The system allows voters to rank their first, second, third and subsequent choices. If no candidate receives an absolute majority on the first ballot, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her supporters' second-choice votes are counted. That continues until one candidate receives more than 50 per cent.

"I like the idea of a preferential ballot," McNeil told reporters. "I think people are looking for ... ways to deliver elections differently to Nova Scotians, to engage them."

However, McNeil said he isn't committing to bringing in the idea in this mandate, and would consult with opposition parties before taking any action.

In the riding of Dartmouth South, only 38 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in a contest that saw the winning NDP candidate, Marian Mancini, win by a narrow 82-vote margin over the Liberal candidate.

Turnout was better in Cape Breton Centre, with 47 per cent of the electorate turning out, while 49 per cent of voters took the time to vote in Sydney-Whitney Pier. The Liberals won both of those seats.

McNeil said he's concerned by cases where candidates win in a first-past-the-post system with less than 50 per cent of the total vote during a poor turnout.

He said there are also possible changes that might improve turnout such as changing the locations of polling stations or allowing on-line voting.

"People need to feel there is a reason why they're participating. It's concerning that voter turnout is going down. It's been going down in every election I've been in," he said.

Elections Nova Scotia records say turnout in provincial general elections has fallen from more than 80 per cent in 1960 to 58.2 per cent in 2013.

Mark Coffin, who heads the Springtide Collective in Halifax, said research hasn't shown any change in voter turnout resulting from ranked ballots.

He said his charitable organization, which studies ways to improve democratic participation, has surveyed the academic literature and found proportional representation brings an average of about seven per cent higher voter turnout.

"Most of the mature democracies have moved towards that kind of (proportional representation) system," he said. "Ranked ballots have no demonstrated impact on voter turnout up or down ... It's often politicians who say it may increase turnout ... but there's no evidence to suggest whether people turn out to vote."

The premier didn't comment on proportional representation as a possible reform, but he did say he doesn't favour the mandatory voting system that exists in Australia.

After the byelections, the Liberals hold 34 of the legislature's 51 seats, while the Progressive Conservatives have 10 seats, with the NDP holding six and the remaining seat belonging to an independent member.

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