Even as cities across British Columbia saw sweeping change in terms of who leads their councils, one thing stayed the same as the last municipal election — voter turnout continued to lag far behind provincial and federal votes.
As of 3 p.m. PT on Sunday, based on preliminary results, just over 37 per cent of voters turned out to elect local representatives.
It’s a number that’s a few percentage points lower than four years ago, but continues to mirror a trend that holds true across Canada.
So why aren’t people voting in local elections? And how did essentially the same level of political participation result in markedly different city halls on Saturday?
“For the more casual voter, who might turn out for a provincial or certainly a federal election, the municipal level is seen as a utility,” said David Black, who teaches political communication at Royal Roads University in Victoria.
“It’s that lack of appreciation for the difference a mayor and council can make in your life, which I think is a starting point for the low turnout.”
“ABC voters are clearly very excited with the results in Vancouver,” Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Quest University in Squamish, B.C., said of the new centre-right party that won all its seats in Vancouver.
“But the rest of the population — and there’s a significant portion of the population that did not vote for ABC — they are left with very little to show for their votes.”
Both Black and Prest say there are structural fixes that need to happen to ensure higher voter turnout in the next municipal election.
386,931 eligible voters didn’t vote for Ken Sim.
Why did so many mayors get trounced?
Although many B.C. mayors lost their job, many councillors kept theirs — in something that’s known as the “incumbent effect,” where voters tend to place their faith in tried-and-tested incumbents.
Even as voter participation largely stayed the same across the province this year, the reason incumbent mayors in particular seemed to be swept away wholesale has to do with how they become figureheads for particular issues, according to Black.
In Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart became symbolic of the city’s failure to address a perceived increase in crime and homelessness, according to Black. Kelowna’s Colin Basran seemed to fall on this same sword, losing to Tom Dyas.
“Mayoral candidates are much more easily identified as being on one or another side of a question that becomes the ‘ballot question,'” he said. “Surrey RCMP versus a Surrey Police force [for instance]. In the South Island, development and the politics of development, that became the ballot question.
“According to the voters of that issue, the incumbent becomes uniquely vulnerable and the incumbency effect is undone.”
Prest says that a perceived lack of action on these “ballot questions” may have led the same well-informed, well-off voters that voted the incumbent mayors into power in 2018 to vote them out in 2022.
Black identifies one community that saw a “wave election,” where a candidate energized a voting base and increased turnout: Langford, B.C., on Vancouver Island, which saw long-time mayor Stew Young decisively defeated by Scott Goodmanson.
What are the solutions to low turnout?
Black says municipal governments now have the responsibility of educating voters about their responsibilities and powers, and convincing them of their importance — even outside an election cycle.
Even though more municipal voters used advance polls and mail-in opportunities this election, the turnout figures largely stayed the same.
Prest says this shows the limit of “small-scale” fixes to ensure people turn out to vote, and says deeper institutional fixes are required.
“When people see themselves represented in systems, we do have good evidence that turnout will increase,” he said.
Prest says one of those fixes would be to increase the threshold for candidates signing up, thereby reducing the length of ballots.
Another fix would be to introduce proportional voting systems, like the single transferable vote, which would lead people to identify with candidates more easily, according to Prest.
Prest says voters should resist technological solutions like online voting — which has been shown to be unreliable and untrustworthy in the past — and focus on asking for institutional reform.
“Politics really can’t be fixed by technology,” he said. “It’s fixed by fixing institutions … bringing people into the conversation.”