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A home near Borden-Carleton, PEI is seen as the Confederation Bridge looms in the background. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
A home near Borden-Carleton, PEI is seen as the Confederation Bridge looms in the background. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Time to lead

How PEI gets out the vote Add to ...

Near Prince Edward Island's north shore, Bakin' Donuts is a communal hub. At light-brown tables, parents swap stories about their children's misadventures, fishermen regale each other with tales of the sea, and neighbours chew over politics nearly as often as they grumble about the weather.

"People are talking about the elections and about the health care," said shop manager Darlene Arsenault. "People talk politics all the time."

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Fishing and farming are the lifeblood of the Malpeque riding, but politics is also an essential part of its ethos, as it is for the entire province.

In a country grappling with declining voter turnout, PEI stands out as a beacon of engagement. Voting is a must for most in the province, not an afterthought. Islanders keenly understand that their economic well-being is tied to the ballot box, said political scientist Peter McKenna of the University of Prince Edward Island.

The province has recorded the best participation or nearly the best in almost every federal election since it joined Confederation in 1873. An average of 71 per cent took to the polls in the past three campaigns, a high for the country. In contrast, an average of 51 per cent cast ballots in Newfoundland, the worst turnout among provinces.

"Politics really is part of the discourse here," Dr. McKenna said. "If every province had voter participation rates like PEI, I think the country would be better off."

What isn't clear, however, is whether the conditions that foster strong engagement in PEI can be transplanted to other regions, such as the 9 per cent of ridings where participation dipped below 50 per cent in 2008. While several studies have searched for explanations and solutions to the troubling turnout trend, little attention has been paid to PEI and its possible lessons for the nation.

In the last campaign, Malpeque, a largely rural riding of about 34,000 residents, had the second-best turnout in the country: 71.4 per cent. Compared with most federal ridings, its population is vastly smaller. Politicians are visible and known in the country's smallest and least populated province. Residents don't think twice about phoning their politicians to air concerns. They also expect a response.

"Everybody in PEI knows everybody, and it's important to get the right candidate in there," said Stephen Stewart, a local mussel farmer for a quarter-century.

Islanders have felt this way for generations. Many have deep roots in the province and a deep connection to Canada. Immigrants make up about 4 per cent of the population, compared with 20 per cent nationally.

"The bulk of the electorate has been here for about 150 years or more and they feel very strongly Canadian," said historian Edward MacDonald of the University of Prince Edward Island. "They have been inculcated to a higher degree with those traditional values of citizenship and participation."

Heather Mountain, 56, a daughter of native Islanders, grew up listening to her relatives debate the merits of political parties and policies. Rivalries between Liberal and Conservative backers were intense, she recalled, inducing people to the polls.

In turn, politics became a routine topic of conversation in the home she shared with her husband and son, breeding a new generation of political engagement.

"He's very interested in politics. He keeps track," Ms. Mountain said of her son, now 30.

This, perhaps, is PEI's universal lesson: Regular talk of politics at home and in coffee shops can lead to a culture of voting and higher turnout on election day.

Still, Geoff Crowther suspects it will take great effort to replicate PEI's election engagement in other regions. He's a relative newcomer to the island, arriving five years ago from Texas with his wife. The pair run a tea room in the Malpeque riding.

"It's a mindset here," said Mr. Crowther, who grew up in Mississauga. "Everybody cares and everybody gets involved."

High engagement

Other ridings with high voter turnout in 2008:

Verchères-Les Patriotes

Ottawa-Orléans

Saanich-Gulf Islands

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