Thursday, May 29, 2014

So where all the voters? Voter turnout in local elections and why it is low

People in this region are willing to vote but the turnout at local elections has consistently been low.

Here is the turnout by municipality going back over the last six elections.  I am missing data from many of the earlier elections.
Municipality 2011 2008 2005 2002 1999 1996
Highlands    accl 72.0 74.4      58.4
Metchosin    48.8 58.8           48.8
Oak Bay      42.0 48.0 28.7
Sooke        41.9 43.7 40.6 35.3
Nth Saanich  41.5 52.5 48.3
Ctl Saanich  32.4 33.4 28.0
Sidney       31.0 36.5 accl 35.5
View Royal   27.9 23.3 accl
Colwood      26.8 27.0 24.8
Victoria     26.4 26.9 26.4 31.3 31.2 26.2
Saanich      25.4 21.0 19.1 24.6
Esquimalt    18.0 26.9 32.5      25.0
Langford     14.0 22.9 21.3

In the 44 elections listed above only four times did more than half the population vote.   Meanwhile in 10 examples one quarter or less of the population voted.

It is not that people in this region are not willing to vote, when we look at federal and provincial elections we see that 60% to 75% of people are voting in most cases.   Work done by Elections BC indicates that 90% of people voted in at least one of the 2001, 2005 and 2009 elections.  Only around 10% of the population is unwilling to ever vote. 

In Saanich about 76,000 of the voters have voted in at least one of the federal or provincial elections in the last decade.   In 2011 only 21,134 people voted in the local election.    Close to 55,000 people who are willing to vote did not come out vote last time.   

In Victoria the numbers are 60,000 willing to vote but only 17,249 voting in 2011 for a total of 37,750 missing voters.

Turnout in Federal Elections
Riding           2011 2008 2006 2004
Saanich Gulf Isl 75.3 70.4 73.2 74.0
Victoria         67.5 67.5 71.0 68.4   
Esquimalt JdF    65.2 64.6 58.1 65.9

Turnout in Provincial Elections
Riding                 2013 2009 2005 2001
Oak Bay Gordon Head    70.8 66.9 73.6 75.5
Saanich North + Isl    70.3 66.8 73.1 75.9
Saanich South          67.8 66.4 72.0 76.0
Victoria Beacon Hill   59.3 57.2 64.1 69.6
Esquimalt RR/Metchosin 58.9 58.3 66.9 69.5
Vic Swan Lake/Hillside 58.7 56.9 62.7 68.7
Juan de Fuca/Mala-JdF  58.4 59.9 69.6 73.6
It is important to note that how BC calculated voter turnout changed between 2005 and 2009.  Elections BC not only tried to get a lot more people registered, they worked out how many people should be on the voters list.

Can we get all these people that voted in the previous federal and provincial elections to vote in the local elections?

I think it comes down to people not knowing enough about the races for councils to be able to feel comfortable casting a ballot.   People need to get clear information from or about candidates for them to be able to make up their mind.   The problem is that none of things are easy to achieve in a local election.

When in a local election the turnout is higher than previously it often has to do with a competitive race for mayor.  When there is a big race for mayor there tend to only be two strong candidates which makes it easier for people to get the information to make a decision.

When people do vote they will often choose the names on the ballot they have heard of which means it is really hard to defeat an incumbent councilor.   

In a provincial or federal election each candidate has a brand they are connected with.  It means for a lot of people the decision on how they will vote is driven by their opinion of the political parties.   This is not available in local elections.

In a local election campaign it is very hard for anyone show how their platform is something actually different than everyone else.   The phrases and words used by most candidates all start to sound the same rather quickly.   I suspect this is because most candidates would have a very hard time expressing what they would do that is dramatically different than is done currently.   For most voters this means that information they are getting online or in a flyer is not at all helpful to make a decision.

It does not help that in the local elections we have 13 races for council and three races for school boards all at the same time in one city.   The are so many candidates that it is effectively impossible for the local media to cover any of the races.   It is also hard for the media to cover because the platforms of most of the people running do not make for a compelling narrative for the news.   In in federal or provincial election not only are there fewer candidates, there are clear dividing lines between the people running.   Too many races with too many candidates and no clear narrative means it is nightmare for the media to cover.

Ideally a candidate should meet every voter and talk to them.   If they can do this they have a decent chance of convincing people to vote for them.   The problem is that doing this on your own as a candidate is not really possible.  Even in Highlands, with about 1500 voters, it would mean trying to meet 50 people a day in a month long campaign.   It takes a long time in the Highlands to get from house to house.   To have a chance to win an election a candidate needs a campaign team.

Campaigning properly takes a significant sized team if you want to reach all the voters.  In Saanich you need to have a team of 300 to 500 volunteers to reach most of the voters.   In Oak Bay you could get away with 50 to 100.   With so many candidates running at once in this region there are not enough people out there to properly run a campaign.  If even only 100 candidates could achieve a moderate sized campaign team of 100 volunteers that would involve 10,000 people, that is way beyond what anyone could find in this region for political campaigning.   In Greater Victoria there are likely no more than 2,000 to 3,000 people that would seriously consider helping on a campaign.

What it all boils down to:

  • The voter needs good information to make a decision on who to vote for.
  • The candidate has no way to reach the voter with that information they need - not through the media, not through their platform and not through a campaign team.   
The only way this will change is if candidate comes forward with a large campaign team, a clear platform of change, and a compelling narrative for the media.   
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