By Tina Comeau
The law firm representing the defeated candidate for the African Nova Scotian seat in the October Tri-County Regional School Board election has sent out letters to voters asking for information on why they voted, but they will not be asked to reveal who they voted for.
“I will not be asking them how they voted and if anybody does ask I will be objecting to it,” says lawyer Brent Silver, who is representing Michael Alden Fells.
Fells lost his seat to Darlene Lawrence in the October vote.
The matter is before the court because Fells maintains that people voted when they weren’t supposed to.
“Our investigations to date have lead us to believe that there were a significant number of people who voted for the African Nova Scotian school board member who were not properly qualified to vote,” reads the letter sent out by the Bridgewater law firm Taylor and Silver to people whose names show up on a voters’ list of having voted for this seat.
The outcome of the October vote, which included computer and telephone voting, saw a much higher voter turnout. In some cases the number of votes had tripled from previous elections. To be qualified to vote for this seat a person had to be an African Nova Scotian or black person, or the parent of an African Nova Scotia or black person.
Fells’ lawyer says people may have mistakenly voted for this ballot when they were not qualified to do so, either because they voted under a mistaken belief that they were qualified, or they voted due to difficulty, frustration or confusion with the system.
The law firm is asking people to fill out an affidavit pertaining to how their vote came to be.
One of those to receive the letter is Yarmouth resident (Jeanette) Ruth Gavel, who was taken aback by it.
“I started reading it and I started thinking about it and I thought, how do they know any of this? They know my name. They know my address, the house number, the whole works. How do they know? That’s what I want to know?” She was also concerned it might mean her vote may not have been private.
But Silver, and also Marie Atkinson who was the returning officer for the town of Yarmouth, said there is no information on the voter list provided to the law firm that indicates who a person voted for. The name and address of everyone who voted is something that is available following all elections for a specified period of time, whether the voting was done by telephone/computer or by paper ballot.
Asked if people must fill out the affidavit, Silver says nobody is required to do anything at this stage. But if they don’t respond now they may have to respond by subpoena later.
“So far most people have been very good. A lot of people are filling out the affidavits and getting them back to us,” Silver said. He wouldn’t say how many letters were sent out, other than to say it was “a lot.” And again, he stresses that people will never be asked to say whom they voted for.
“The case law says it is inappropriate for people to be questioned along those lines,” he said. “I’m quite certain the court would not allow that line of questioning . . . and I certainly won’t be asking it of anyone.
“Some people have tried to offer that information to me but I say no, don’t tell me.”
If large numbers of people voted for the ballot that shouldn’t have, Fells believes the election result should be thrown out. The matter is scheduled for court again on March 6 in Digby.
When the case was before a judge recently, the successful candidate said there are many reasons why the vote may have been higher. Darlene Lawrence said people who were reluctant in the past to proclaim themselves, in person, as qualified to vote for the seat may have felt more comfortable to do so anonymously over the phone or by computer. And perhaps the slate of the candidates encouraged larger voter participation then in previous elections.
Dean Smith, the president of Intelivote Systems Inc., which ran the online/telephone elections in this region, says the onscreen information and telephone script did ask voters to confirm that they were qualified to vote for the African Nova Scotian seat before casting their vote. Eligibility was also spelled out in a letter to all eligible municipal voters.
“If voters got to a race by mistake they could exit the system by using the exit button on the screen, or by closing their browser or if they were voting by phone, they could simply hang up and there would not be a ballot cast for the race they had erroneously entered into,” said Smith.