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Bowen Island mayoral candidate Tim Rhodes solicits support among commuters in the early-morning ferry lineup on Thursday.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

On Bowen Island, campaigns are fought in the general store and along the waterfront. Those who wants to get elected spend most mornings walking the long line of people and cars awaiting the 20-minute ferry sailing to West Vancouver, talking to voters and fielding questions about their platforms.

In 2011, voter turnout among the island's 2,292 eligible voters was the highest in the province.

"Folks know that in a community this size, their chosen candidates have a very real ability to effect real change," said Tim Rhodes, who is running for mayor.

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During the last round of municipal elections, 87.4 per cent of Bowen Island's eligible voters cast a ballot. Turnout in Vancouver was 34.6 per cent.

B.C.'s top 10 voter-turnout list is filled with tiny communities of fewer than 1,000 eligible voters, places like Tahsis, Slocan and Gold River. The two largest municipalities where at least half of the population voted were Whistler and Qualicum Beach.

Size alone was not enough to guarantee participation. Still, smaller communities tend to have stronger social connections and greater population stability, both of which encourage turnout, said Vancouver analyst Norman Gludovatz, the author of a 2014 report called Getting the Majority to Vote.

"If you already know that's George and that's Marsha, and you've lived there all your life, it's very easy to go into the ballot box and go check, check, check," Mr. Gludovatz said.

Vancouver's political climate is a world away from Bowen Island's, but Mr. Gludovatz says candidates in larger municipalities can recreate that sense of familiarity by using the lowest-tech tool at their disposal: going door to door and talking to people.

Numbers in municipal elections skyrocket when a referendum is on the ballot that makes voters feel their lives would be directly affected. On Bowen Island in 2011, voters weighed in on whether to create a national park reserve on the island. In Abbotsford, which at 39 per cent had the highest voter turnout in the over-50,000 population category, it was the 2011 referendum on whether the city should partner with a private company to create a new water supply.

Mr. Gludovatz said Vancouver's turnout tends to be weak because its civic elections, in which voters pick councillors at large, do not capitalize on neighbourhood connections. In a ward system, it is easier to approximate the small-town ties found in jurisdictions like Bowen Island.

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"We're missing that sense of local community, of neighbourhoods," he said.

Public engagement analyst Susanna Haas Lyons says turnout in Vancouver is low because city residents report high levels of alienation, citing a Vancouver Foundation study that found social relationships in Vancouver neighbourhoods were "cordial, but weak."

"The shallower your roots are in a community, the less information you have about local issues and candidates," she said.

Vancouver's complex at-large voting system also sets a higher bar for civic engagement. Ms. Lyons said she thinks many Vancouverites do not feel they have the political savvy to make informed choices, and lack the social networks to share information and help each other make sense of the field.

Lisa Barrett was the mayor of Bowen Island for two terms and is now running for Vancouver city council as a COPE candidate. She said the proximity between voters and decision-makers on the island means people believe their voices will be heard.

In Vancouver, she said, people do not think politicians are listening.

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"I do get people saying, 'I don't vote. I'm sick and tired of it,'" she said. "I don't blame them."

"The best thing I learned on Bowen Island is if you want higher engagement, you have to foster that environment where there is meaningful consultation and people can hear each other," Ms. Barrett said.

This year's mayoral candidates on the island say voters know how much the decisions made at a local level affect their day-to-day lives.

"You don't have any provincial roads running through, or anything like that. Everything in the municipality – other than Crown land and regional park land – is us," mayoral candidate Murray Skeels said.

Stacy Beamer, who is also running for mayor, said people also come out to the polls because they care so much about Bowen, which he called "a forested island in paradise."

"It's an old-school small town," he said. "We don't always get along, but people have each other's back."

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In larger cities, high municipal voter turnout is often driven by a polarizing candidate.

In the 2000, 2003 and 2006 Toronto municipal elections, turnout hovered in the high 30s, not far ahead of where Vancouver sits now. When Rob Ford was elected in 2010, turnout rose to 51 per cent, and last month, his brother Doug Ford lost the election to replace him in a vote with a record-breaking 60 per cent turnout.

Chief elections officer Janice Mackenzie told reporters in June she hopes Vancouver's turnout will rise to 60 per cent by 2025, but in the short-term, she'd like a four-point bump in 2014.

Early voting turnout in Vancouver looks promising: 38,556 ballots were cast in the advance polls, which is almost twice the number cast in 2011. The city added three new advance polling stations and four more days of early voting this year.

However, the city has come under fire for failing to have advance polling stations in the Downtown Eastside and Grandview, and for leaving 1,069 Musqueam residents off the voter list during advance voting.

"Maybe that was an oversight, but it does eliminate a certain segment of our population and it breeds cynicism," Ms. Barrett said. "We have to do a better job."

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