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In 1758, Nova Scotia elected the first representative government in what was to become Canada. While an elected House of Assembly was a significant step forward, it was composed of representatives elected by a limited number of individuals with specific characteristics. Voters were required to own property and swear certain oaths.
Below is a short time line showing key events in the evolution of the franchise in Nova Scotia. Voting rights developed from a select number of non-Catholic land owners in 1758, to Universal Suffrage in 1920 and lowered voting ages in the 1970s.
May 20, 1758
Regulations for first election
Governor-in-Council Proclamation (May 20, 1758)
Protestant electors, 21 years of age or older, who own a freehold of any value to vote in the constituency where the land is held can vote. At this time, Jews and Roman Catholics were implicitly excluded.
August 22, 1759
40 shillings freehold franchise established
Extracts of the Resolution of Council for the Regulating of Elections of Members in General Assembly (August 22, 1759)
The 1758 regulations are amended by His Majesty’s Council, requiring eligible voters to be possessed of in their own right of freehold estate within the province, property having a yearly value of 40 shillings. This measure brought eligibility in line with English practice.
December 21, 1759
Quakers can make an affirmation instead of Oath
An Act for Permitting Persons of the Profession of the People Called Quakers, to Make an Affirmation instead of taking an Oath (1758 2nd Session, c. 2, p. 48)
Quakers are permitted to make a solemn affirmation, rather than swear an Oath. Quakers refused to swear an oath because they believed all who possessed the spirit of Christ would speak the truth on all occasions in love for Him and in obedience to His command. The legislative change followed the British Parliament and other American colonies.
Roman Catholics permitted to acquire and hold lands
An Act for the Relieving His Majesty’s Subjects Professing the Popish Religion from Certain Penalties… (1783, c. 9, p. 235)
Roman Catholics are granted the ability to acquire and hold land without restrictions but only if they take oaths highly offensive to them, including the Oath of Allegiance to King George III and oaths renouncing the jurisdiction of the Pope and those who support the Pope.
April 1, 1789
Franchise granted to Roman Catholics and Jews
An Act for the Better Regulation of Elections (1789, c. 1, p. 273)
Legislation passed by the House only requires voters to take the Oath of Allegiance, thereby abolishing the Declaration against Transubstantiation and extending the franchise to Roman Catholics and Jews. Voter eligibility is also expanded to those with an income of 40 shillings or more in real estate; those owning a dwelling with land, regardless of value; those owning at least 100 acres of land, whether farmed or not; or those who occupy Crown land by virtue of an occupancy permit. Freeholders still must meet the 1759 criteria. These changes favour urban landowners, fishermen and Loyalists.
First known instance of women voters
Six women vote in the Windsor Township election, as they met the legal property requirements. The matter was brought before the House, but it avoids the question of whether women could vote. Women vote again in 1806 in Amherst Township.
Changes to land requirements
An Act in Amendment to an Act … An Act for the Better Regulation of Elections (1797, c. 3, p. 386) Voters must either have an income of 40 shillings or more per year in freehold estate, own a dwelling house, or own 100 acres of land or more, with at least five acres under cultivation.
Franchise extended to Cape Breton
An Act to Extend the Laws and Ordinances of the Province of Nova-Scotia to the Island of Cape-Breton (1820-21, c. 5, p, 101)
As a result of the re-annexation of Cape Breton to Nova Scotia in 1820, the House of Assembly passes an act extending the laws of the Province to the island, including the franchise. This act is problematic as the majority of Cape Breton residents are either tenants or occupants on Crown lands or those of private speculators. To avoid this conflict and allow Cape Bretoners to vote, leases and licenses of occupation in lieu of Crown grants are equated with freehold or leasehold tenure.
Roman Catholics permitted to acquire and hold lands without taking the offensive Oaths
An Act for the Relief of Roman Catholics (1826, c. 18, p. 263)
The requirement for the former oath that required a Declaration against Transubstantiation, or the authority of the Pope in order to hold property, is removed. Roman Catholics can now hold office and vote.
Complete emancipation of Roman Catholics
An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects in this Province (1830, c. 1, p. 73)
Roman Catholics obtain by law what the House had granted by resolution in 1823 – the full right of the franchise. The passing of this legislation was ordered by the Colonial Secretary after the British House of Commons passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1830.
Changes to land requirements
An Act for Regulating the Election of Members to Serve in General Assembly (1839, c. 35, p. 47)
Freeholders owning property generating an annual income of 40 shillings, property owners who meet the same conditions as freeholders, mortgagors, co-owners and tenants if they owned an interest in real property that earned them at least 40 shillings annually are permitted to vote.
Introduction of simultaneous polling
An Act to Improve the Law Relating to the Election of Representatives to Serve in the General Assembly (1847, c. 1, p. 1)
Provides for simultaneous polling, with polls open from eight o'clock in the morning to five o'clock in the afternoon, so electors can vote in a single day. This action in effect removed the "open houses" where candidates provided food, lodging, and rum for electors. It is the system of polling still used today.
Male tax payer franchise
An Act to Extend the Elective Franchise (1851, c. 2, p. 17)
All males of 21 years who had been assessed for and paid the poor and county tax rates in the year preceding the election can vote. In constituencies without tax collection, only freeholders with property valued at 40 shillings per year could vote. Women are excluded; they could not vote even if they met the legal requirements regarding taxes or property.
Manhood suffrage enacted
An Act Concerning the Elective Franchise (1854, c. 6, p. 12)
All male British subjects, aged 21 years or older, who have lived in the colony for five years or more, including recent immigrants, are permitted to vote. "Indians" and those receiving financial assistance under any poor law or as a poor person from any public grant of government money are excluded. Nova Scotia was the first colony in British North America to introduce manhood suffrage.
Property requirement reinstated
An Act to Regulate the Election of Members to Serve in the General Assembly (1863, c. 28, p. 49)
British subjects at least 21 years old who own property assessed at $150 or more, or personal or real property assessed at $300 or more can vote. As a result, universal male suffrage is eliminated. The clause excluding Indians is removed, but paupers are still not allowed vote. Teachers and schoolmasters are allowed to vote.
Secret ballot established
An Act to Establish Vote by Ballot at Elections (1870, c. 24, p. 23)
Nova Scotia is the second province to establish the secret ballot: “The Governor in Council shall cause a sufficient number of ballot boxes to be furnished with locks and keys, to be made, each with a convenient aperture for depositing the ballots therein, and to secure the ballots from loss or illegal interference …”
April 26, 1918
Franchise extended to female property owners
Nova Scotia Franchise Act (1918, c. 2, p. 2)
The Act explicitly includes women, but they can only vote if they have property of certain values.
Act to Amend Chapter 2, Acts of 1918 (1920, c. 49, p. 65)
All property and income-based requirements are eliminated - universal suffrage takes effect.
Voting age reduced
An Act to amend Chapter 83 of the Revised Statues, 1967, the Elections Act (1970, c. 41, p. 190)
The age of eligible voters is reduced from twenty-one to nineteen.
Voting age reduced
An Act to amend Chapter 83 of the Revised Statues, 1967, the Elections Act (1973, c. 29, p. 235)
The voting age is reduced from nineteen to eighteen.