Towns and cities across Alberta recorded low voter turnout in this week’s municipal elections, according to official data.
Less than 50 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in many communities, and in some cases turnout was less than 40 per cent – in line with a wider trend in municipalities across Canada, small and large. Local elections have long had significantly lower turnout than their provincial and federal counterparts, and rates have been falling everywhere for decades despite efforts from election officials.
In Calgary, where Jyoti Gondek was elected mayor Monday, voter turnout was 46.38 per cent, significantly lower than the 58.1-per-cent turnout during the previous municipal election, in 2017. Turnout increased in Edmonton, where former Liberal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi was elected mayor, to the highest rate since 2004 – but it was still a dismal 37.6 per cent.
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In Red Deer, halfway between Calgary and Edmonton, turnout was 30.15, a slight increase from the 28.8-per-cent turnout in 2017. Lethbridge, southeast of Calgary, saw a jump to 34.88 per cent from 27.09 per cent in the previous election.
Other municipalities in Canada suffer from the same poor levels of voter participation. Turnout in Vancouver’s last municipal election, in 2018, was 39.4 per cent, while Toronto saw 41 per cent the same year. By way of contrast, last month’s federal election had a turnout of 62.5 per cent.
Lori Williams, who teaches political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the low numbers may be a sign of fatigue among voters a month after a federal election. The inclusion of two provincial referendums, one on the federal equalization program and another on switching to permanent daylight saving time, may have also been a factor, she said.
“Some voters felt overwhelmed and unprepared to cast a fully informed vote,” Prof. Williams said.
She also attributed the lack of engagement from voters to the lack of competition among candidates.
“Engagement tends to be higher in competitive elections, and in many places, incumbency is such an advantage that voters may not think their vote will make a difference,” she said.
Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at MacEwan University in Edmonton, said the encroachment of partisanship at the municipal level could have deterred some voters; for example, Dr. Mensah noted that NDP MLAs and volunteers were actively supporting local candidates.
“Often municipal leaders have worsened their relationship with the provincial government by serving as overt political opposition, much to the detriment of working collaboratively with the higher level of government for the benefit of their citizens,” he explained.
“There has to be less ideological and partisan bickering and more focus on addressing the pressing challenges facing the city.”
To overcome some of these challenges, some municipalities have already developed new measures to encourage voter participation and increase engagement in municipal elections.
The city of Red Deer is already working with local schools to include mock student elections alongside the Grade 6 social studies module, conducting them before their municipal elections.
“We are hoping that it will help encourage them to vote when they become eligible to vote,” said Samantha Rodwell, Red Deer’s returning officer.
While the pandemic cancelled this year’s mock elections, Ms. Rodwell explained that the city is already preparing for the next municipal election, in 2025.
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