It’s the government that most affects your daily life—so why do most people not vote?
IN THE DAYS LEADING UP to the mid-October municipal elections, small knots of residents gathered on street corners in the residential area of View Royal bordering Esquimalt Harbour.
Suddenly, there was energy around the election. Conversations in the pub turned to the mayoral contest and residents scrolled through the draft Official Community Plan—a document not usually on anyone’s light reading list—trying to figure out whether multi-storey buildings were planned for the primarily large-lot, single family area.
Interest spiked when then-incumbent mayor David Screech became publicly and noisily involved in a shouting match at a private gathering convened to meet the new mayoral candidate, Sid Tobias, who was subsequently elected.
It had all the makings of a compelling contest, even though the council candidates were largely incumbents.
But, on election day, most View Royal voters chose to stay away from the polls. Out of an estimated 9,169 eligible voters, only 2,382 voted, meaning a 25.98 percent turnout, down almost four points from the 2018 election.
It was the same story in Langford where two slates offered clearly different visions. Drama was inevitable as battle lines were set between long-time Mayor Stew Young and those questioning his vision of breakneck development.
In the fast-growing city, where many residents are renters or newcomers, some slippage was expected, but hopes were high that turnout would soar from the dismal 18.49 percent turnout in 2018—a figure that gave Langford the dubious distinction of having the second-lowest turnout in the province.
Turnout did increase to 24 percent, meaning 8,437 out of an estimated 35,153 eligible voters cast ballots, but it was far from the hoped-for surge.
In Victoria, where topics such as bike lanes and picnic tables at Clover Point have incensed residents, 36.81 percent voted, putting the city above the provincial average of 29.2 per cent, but falling far short of a ringing endorsement for new Mayor Marianne Alto and her council.
Despite hot button issues such as homelessness, law enforcement, the opioid crisis and traffic congestion, all of which land on the desks of local councils—although they often do not have the budget or mandate to solve them—bursts of dissatisfaction and outrage were apparently not enough to convince people to vote.
The paradox is that, although local government is, in many ways, the body that has the most relevance to people’s day-to-day lives—whether because of housing, zoning or policing—it is also the one that has the least power and the least revenues, said University of Victoria political science professor Michael Prince.
“So, the government that is closest to us and the one that could be most meaningful to us, is the one restricted in its capacity to offer peace, order and good government,” he said.
A belief that local councils will not solve the increasing urban problems probably affects voting, along with a lack of knowledge about candidates.
University of Victoria assistant professor of political science Justin Leifso finds it curious that, although people appear concerned about issues such as a housing, they do not vote.
“Municipal politics just doesn’t capture the political imagination in Canada as much as federal and provincial,” Leifso said.
A partial explanation may be that, with an expanding population, many new residents do not yet have a sense of belonging to the community, which makes it daunting for them to sort out the local political landscape, Leifso said.
Conversely, this year, a surprising number of people put their names forward as candidates.
Victoria attracted eight mayoral candidates and 37 people vied for the eight council seats while Victoria’s School District 61 saw 30 candidates—most of them without a public profile—competing for nine trustee positions.
The number of people ready to put time and effort into serving the community is heartening, even though voter turnout was low, Prince said.
“The takeaway good news is that there were a lot of new young people—a new generation—so it’s encouraging that there’s still a commitment and people wanting to serve,” he said.
While the number of school board candidates was eye-glazing, and many without children in the school system saw little point in voting for school trustees, the makeup of school boards is taking on increased importance, Leifso sai
“There are really crucial social questions with regards to queer rights and trans rights, so school board elections are becoming really hot topics,” he said.
But, the number of candidates on the ballot mean voters struggle to sort out where candidates stand.
Curtis Evans, who is in the process of moving from Victoria to View Royal, did not vote in either community although he always votes in provincial and federal elections.
“The main reason is I had no idea who anybody was. It was just lack of information about what people were representing,” Evans said.
“It’s different when it’s provincial or national because you have a chance to hear from the (political) parties and there are way less people,” he said.
Party politics plays only a minor role in municipal elections on Vancouver Island, but that means that there is not an easily accessible, big picture explanation of a candidate’s basic beliefs.
“I probably could have learned by doing some research, talking to people and finding out what these individuals represented, but the amount of effort to do that was disproportionate to the amount of impact it would have on my life,” Evans said.
“That 15 to 20 hours is more valuable spent on my other busy things like my kid and my business and my work,” he said.
A possible solution could be to demand that each candidate fill in a lengthy questionnaire on where they stand on important issues and it could be used later to hold them to account, Evans said.
For example, if someone says they are more for social investment than capital investment it would give a good idea of where they stand, he said.
Shawna Abbott, a long-term Langford resident, did not vote municipally although she always votes in provincial and federal elections.
“I feel like I’m just not educated enough in my neighbourhood although I do educate myself when it comes to provincial and federal,” said Abbott, adding that she had not realized a local election was imminent until campaign signs appeared.
“All of a sudden there’s 30 signs up for people I’ve never even heard of. When it’s federal or provincial you know if [someone] is NDP or Liberal or Conservative, but this is just a name on a board,” said Abbott, adding that no candidates knocked on her door and she received only one flyer.
“I just wouldn’t know where to start to try and learn about them,” she said.
Prince agrees that, without identifiable political parties backing candidates, it is more difficult for voters to choose—especially when faced with such lengthy lists.
“But a lot of places don’t like the idea that local elections would be populated by mainstream parties,” he said.
Voters wanting to know more about candidates can look at slates, where like-minded candidates band together, or at endorsements from labour, business or teachers’ groups, but Prince believes, during this election campaign, more decisions were made informally, with people emailing each other or talking to friends and neighbours, especially when looking at lists of unknown people.
“I have a hunch that’s going on more and more. We have a core of really engaged citizens here and this is an interesting example of how they are getting informed,” he said.
People also appeared to be voting strategically, rather than casting the full number of votes, Prince said.
For example, in Oak Bay, figures show that voters on average marked their ballots for 4.6 candidates for six positions, meaning people were choosing partial, selective or strategic voting, he said.
Apart from uncertainty about candidates affecting turnout, the election took place at a time of growing cynicism about politicians in general, said Prince, referencing the Billy Connolly quote “Don’t vote. It just encourages them.”
That viewpoint has been exacerbated during the pandemic, with an increasing disconnect between residents and politicians, as in-person meetings were replaced by virtual meetings.
Councillors and municipal staff were suddenly less accessible for face-to-face discussions, leading to some citizens and public interest groups feeling they were left out of decisions, Prince said.
“And maybe there is also a sense of being overwhelmed with so many crises and challenges facing people whether it’s housing affordability, the missing middle debate, cost of living, inflation, health care, people without family doctors, climate change,” he said.
“It’s almost paralyzing, [especially] for people who may already have limited faith or belief in government,” he said.
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE to encourage voting?
There is no magic solution, but some people believe four years is too long a term for councillors and three years would be the Goldilocks number—not too long or too short, Prince said.
In larger municipalities such as Victoria and Saanich, some people would like to see a ward system introduced, but in the mess of 13 Greater Victoria municipalities, ward systems would not be practical in smaller communities.
“I know that amalgamation is a sensitive topic here, but maybe you could put out the option of having bigger electoral areas with wards,” Leifso said.
Another possibility is making it marginally more difficult for candidates to run for office.
Currently a candidate can run if nominated by a minimum of two residents in smaller communities. Other municipalities ask for 10 nominees or, in populations of more than 5,000, papers can be signed by 25 nominees.
The $100 deposit is refunded after a candidate files campaign financial disclosure statements.
Those prevented from running are judges, people confined to a psychiatric facility, those previously found guilty of election offences or those in custody after being convicted and sentenced for an indictable offence. See the “Candidates Guide” here.)
Making the threshold a little higher may seem counter-intuitive, but it could reduce numbers and make decisions easier, Leifso said.
In Australia, where there is compulsory voting, election day is usually accompanied by parties and barbecues outside polling booths,
but there is little appetite to bring in a similar system in B.C.
“At this time, the ministry is not contemplating mandatory voting,” said a background statement from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
However, following local elections “the ministry and election administrators review how the election was carried out and look for improvement opportunities,” according to the statement.
Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen was not available for an interview.
B.C is not alone when it comes to poor voter turnout and, with vital and complex issues facing Canadian cities, the apparent lack of interest is a concern, Prince said.
“It’s hard to lobby the provincial and federal governments and go and lecture your premier or prime minister when you got elected on a turnout of 20 percent,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world, along with the politics around them.