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By-elections see record low voter turnout in Alberta, higher numbers in Toronto area

Conservative candidate John Barlow celebrates his victory in the federal by-election in the Macleod riding in High River, Alta., Monday, June 30, 2014.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Conservative David Yurdiga, the victor of Monday's by-election in the Alberta riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca, is heading to the House of Commons after winning the support of just 5,945 voters, or 7 per cent of the nearly 84,000 people registered to vote.

In what appears to be a record low for voter turnout in Canada, only 15.2 per cent of registered voters cast ballots in that riding, according to the latest figures from Elections Canada. In the riding of Macleod, also in Alberta, participation on Monday was 19.6 per cent – apparently the second-lowest ever recorded.

Turnout was higher in the two Ontario by-elections, with 29.4-per-cent participation in Scarborough-Agincourt, which was won by Liberal Arnold Chan, and 31.6 per cent in Trinity-Spadina, where Liberal Adam Vaughan was the victor.

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"I knew it was going to be brutal," said Conservative John Barlow, who won in Macleod. "People, when we were at the doors, just didn't know it was going on. That was the biggest thing. I don't think there was voter apathy so much as people genuinely didn't know it was on."

Diane Benson, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, told The Globe on Tuesday that the Fort McMurray and Macleod turnouts are the lowest in modern Canadian history, but that a manual check of paper records would be needed to confirm by-election turnouts back to Confederation. Generally speaking, however, lower turnout is a relatively recent trend, she said.

The hot and sunny weekend weather in the heart of oil sands country may have enticed residents away from the ballot box. The northern Alberta riding is a temporary home for oil sands workers from across the country and another theory is that many took advantage of the opportunity to get away by stretching Tuesday's Canada Day into a four-day weekend.

Geoffrey Hale, associate professor of political science with the University of Lethbridge, said the timing of the vote and the fact that the results would not have had any impact on Conservative government's majority in Parliament are likely factors.

"By-elections scheduled largely in the middle of a long holiday weekend, given the number of people who are travelling at this time of year, are almost designed to limit turnout," he said.

The "transient" nature of Fort McMurray – where many people are on short-term work assignments – also affects turnout, he said.

"They don't have a long-term commitment in the area," he said, joking that Fort McMurray is sometimes viewed as "the second-largest town in Newfoundland."

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Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said the lower turnout should be a concern to all parties, but he believes it was no accident.

"It was clearly an attempt at a form of voter-suppression," he said. "The choice of the date has a lot to do with it and that was deliberate on the Prime Minister's part."

Mr. Goodale said the government likely figured it would benefit from a lower turnout.

"Incumbency has its advantages and they think they can just drive people away from the ballot box," he said.

The NDP's national director, Anne McGrath, said the turnout is "obviously a cause for concern" that she blames largely on the timing of the vote.

"The actual voting day was sandwiched between a weekend and a holiday day," she said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a lot of people would be taking advantage of that one day in between to take a longer weekend."

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Researcher Alice Funke, the publisher of punditsguide.ca, noted Monday the two turnouts in Alberta were the lowest ever in her records, which date back to 1979.

"This sets a new low for Canadian politics in more ways than one," she wrote.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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