The province’s already dismal rates of voter turnout for civic elections could plunge even lower in this fall's B.C. election, the result of several factors that have experienced political observers worrying the vote could be decided on single issues rather than solutions to severe problems.
Low voter participation could mean councillors and mayors are elected by small fractions of a city’s total population – a trend that could favour either incumbents or candidates who appeal to a small but determined group of motivated voters angry about one particular problem. Currently, Vancouver and its surrounding cities are struggling with very large issues concerning housing, transportation and crime.
“I’ve been door-knocking all summer and I would say, ballpark, 80 per cent of the people I talk to do not know there’s an election coming,” said Daniel Fontaine, a veteran political campaigner who is running as a councillor for New Westminster this year.
“I think people are going to win with a very small majority of votes.”
Mr. Fontaine and other political observers say there is a combination of factors that could end up producing a lack of voters.
For one, the election on Oct. 20 is a month earlier than the usual third weekend of November, leaving a smaller window for campaigning. There are also new rules prohibiting union and corporate donations, as well as a $1,200 limit for individual donations to a candidate or party. That means less money for advertising.
And there has been a proliferation of new parties in some cities, and new candidates, which is also confusing people.
Pollster Mario Canseco, whose company Research Co. has been tracking voter opinions in some local cities, said he is noticing a much larger proportion of undecided voters this year – around 30 per cent to 35 per cent, compared with the 15 per cent or 20 per cent he usually sees in federal or provincial elections.
“Because of the changes, you can’t advertise like you used to. I don’t think we’re going to see the radio ads we saw four years ago,” Mr. Canseco said.
Election turnout is typically lower for cities than at other levels because voters have a harder time getting to know the candidates, who don’t run under the long-standing brands of the national and provincial parties.
But it varies wildly. Small towns often see high turnout – Zeballos, on Vancouver Island, population 102 – had 87 per cent of voters at the ballot box in 2014, while Greenwood, a town of 540 in the Kootenays, had 70-per-cent participation.
Big cities have been able to get as high as the mid-40s by using party systems that make identification easy for voters. But mid-size suburbs often do the worst. New Westminster turnout in 2014 was 28.5 per cent, while Coquitlam was 26 per cent; the city of Langley was 21 per cent.
Mr. Fontaine said he would have liked to see the Union of BC Municipalities or Elections BC mount a campaign to alert people to the coming civic elections. The City of Vancouver has adopted an aggressive strategy to encourage people to vote, but not every city has been as pro-active.
The prospect of very low voter participation comes at a time when there is major upheaval throughout the local-government sector, with huge numbers of councillors and mayors choosing not to run again in some of B.C.’s 162 cities and towns or 28 regional districts.
Many mayors, from West Kelowna to Burns Lake to Squamish, are bowing out for this term, along with more than half of the 21 mayors in the Lower Mainland.
Typical turnover in election years is about 40 per cent, leaving nearly two-thirds of experienced local politicians in place to provide continuity.
But some municipalities are seeing much higher rates of politicians choosing not to run again. As well, many incumbents staying on are facing unusually strong challengers.
In Vancouver, for example, only three of the current 11-member council are planning to run again for the same position.
In Tofino, Mayor Josie Osborne was surprised to see three councillors from the seven-member council choose not to run.
“That hasn’t happened in three or four elections here.”