In B.C.’s last local government elections in 2011 less than 30 per cent of people bothered to vote. CivicInfoBC has a handy list of turnout information for all of our local governments here.
I was curious about how this compared to local election turnout in other provinces. I don’t have turnout information at a provincial level for the other provinces so I looked at the largest cities.
It turns out that a lot of communities are doing better than we are. I couldn’t find the turnout information for Saint John, N.B., but there at a provincial level the turnout was 40 per cent — more than ten points higher than British Columbia. In St. John’s 2008 election nearly half of the population turned out to the polls. Calgary came in at the bottom, down by half from the elections before the last ones.
Vancouver’s 35 per cent turnout is positively robust compared to the 29 per cent average for the province. Most other communities in the Lower Mainland were in the low-to-mid 20 per cent range.
Voter turnout has been falling federally and provincially. At a local level it is already very low. Why should we care? First, it’s just bad for democracy when people lose interest in voting. Second, it leaves the decision-making in the hands of people who do vote, and that group tends to be richer and older. Their concerns are not necessarily the same as everyone else’s.
This is not an issue that has been ignored. B.C.’s Chief Elections Officer has been thinking and publishing on voter turnout for years. People have talked about encouraging higher turnout through different ways of voting. That might work. In St. John’s, with a more than 50 per cent turnout, people were allowed to vote by mail. Local governments are looking at different ways of voting but there are problems that still need to be ironed out.
A New Brunswick academic makes an interesting point about turnout. Tom Bateman at St. Thomas University said, “When people are in closer touch with their representatives, when the communities are smaller, and there is less transience in the population — people coming and going all the time — then people have a closer connection with political life and their participation in elections tends to be higher.”
There is evidence for that here in B.C. as well. I have population and turnout information for 146 local governments from the 2011 election. Of them, the 77 communities with a population of less than 6,000 had an average voter turnout of 47.5 per cent. In contrast, our ten largest communities with populations above 100,000 had an average turnout of 28.6 per cent. The average would have been even lower if it hadn’t been for good turnouts in Vancouver (34.6 per cent), Abbotsford (39.2 per cent) and Delta (33.7 per cent).
There are some explanations for the higher turnout numbers. Abbotsford’s election coincided with a hard-fought campaign over partial privatization of their water system. A big issue attracts more attention. Vancouver has a competitive political party system at the local level. With a party system, people have a better understanding of where candidates stand than they do than in communities where large numbers of individuals are running as individuals “at large.”
I don’t know why Delta would be doing better when it comes to turnout.
There is one other point that needs to be considered. The evidence that people are more likely to vote in small communities, to me, argues for ward systems. Most provinces already use wards for their local elections. In ward systems people are voting for representatives of their own communities. They are more likely to know the candidates and to know the local issues. And in small communities, even in Metro Vancouver, people do turn out to vote. In Anmore turnout was above 50 per cent. On Bowen Island it was above 80 per cent.
We talk about ward system in fits and starts in B.C. but all the focus is usually on Vancouver. I think this discussion should go a lot further.
My friend Mike Dumler wrote about this recently in a Coalition of Progressive Electors website.
The Tyee wrote on the subject in 2008. Both of these discussions were limited to Vancouver.
Both Mike and The Tyee call for a mixed system for Vancouver with some elected at large and some elected in wards. This was the system they used to have in Ontario before it was abandoned and replaced with a straight ward system.
Photo: League of Women Voters of California LWVC/flickr