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Fixes eyed to dismal municipal election turnout

2011 municipal election TURNOUT | Create Infographics

Dismal voter turnout rates in municipal elections could be improved through new tactics to make voting easier and more top-of-mind, a new study suggests.

The report "Getting the Majority to Vote" by the Columbia Institute notes 70 to 80 per cent of eligible voters didn't vote in the last civic elections in 2011 in most of B.C.

Vancouver, with higher profile municipal politicians and well-funded campaigns, did the best among B.C.'s bigger cities with 34.6 per cent turnout.

But Surrey's turnout was 25.2 per cent and several other Metro Vancouver cities fared even worse, with mayors and councils elected on turnouts ranging from 21 to 25 per cent in Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam and on the North Shore. (See chart below story.)

Report author Norman Gludovatz recommends preregistration of teens while they're still in high school in an attempt to develop life-long voting habits among youth, whose turnout is worse than older age groups.

He also suggests handing out 'I voted did you?' stickers, recruiting celebrities to advocate for voting and even the use of incentives, like automatically entering voters in a lottery.

"It is a real-world solution that has been proven to work," the report says, citing a 10 per cent increase in turnout in a Norwegian city that gave away a travel voucher.

Secure online voting and more advanced voting days are other potential ways to make it easier to cast a ballot, he added.

"Popular culture already stimulates millions of people to vote online for programs such as Canadian Idol, and electronic voting can use that existing learned practice and pop cultural tradition to help elect a local government."

Elections BC findings released in February recommended a slow and methodical exploration of Internet voting options, and cautioned there's little evidence turnout will improve, even if the technical and security challenges can be overcome.

The Columbia Institute report flags a number of reasons why municipal voter turnout has ebbed.

Gludovatz notes local elections are complex, requiring voters to choose multiple candidates for mayor, city council and school board, unlike federal and provincial elections where voters pick just one candidate.

It's simpler in many other parts of Canada where a ward system means people vote to fill only one council seat in their area, not multiple councillors for the whole city.

A growing number of people are feeling disconnected, particularly in fast-growing populations where newcomers have little or no social network, Gludovatz said.

Many others haven't developed the habit to vote or believe their vote won't make a difference.

Municipal elections also get less media coverage and resulting water cooler chat, he said.

People who didn't vote last time were more likely to speak a first language other than English, be young, lack higher education, move more frequently or have a low income.

Some non-voters are "highly cynical" about politics, but Gludovatz said many believe in democracy and care greatly about how they're governed, adding it's wrong to write them off as lazy, uncaring citizens.

Many feel they should cast an informed vote, but find that difficult in civic elections with long lists of candidates.

Gludovatz said in an interview the disparity between Metro Vancouver suburbs and Interior cities, which have better turnout around 30 per cent, may mainly reflect the rapid growth of urban areas, with more newcomers there who are slower to identify with their particular home municipality.

2011 municipal election TURNOUT | Create Infographics
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