Voter tune-out: Why do so few people vote in Vancouver elections?

Federal elections get at least 60 per cent turnout, while provincial elections get around 50. Vancouver’s number is closer to 30 per cent

Imagine a scenario where you’re in a room with nine other people and dinnertime is approaching. There are varying degrees of hunger and food preferences in the room, but six o’clock is the agreed upon time to eat.

Three people put their hands up and vote for Hawaiian pizza, the other seven don’t say anything. The majority in the room is now saddled with pineapple on their pizza. And worse yet, they’ll get nothing but that for four years whether they like it or not.

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This simplistic and watered down hypothetical is actually a microcosm of almost every municipal election in Vancouver for the last 20 years, as voter turnout rates have hovered around a dismal 30 per cent on average.

By comparison, federal elections during the same time period have consistently brought in double that number. Provincial elections, meanwhile, have attracted between 50 and 60 per cent of voters since 2001.

Theories abound as to why that chasm exists, particularly given that most everyday services — roads, parks and garbage — are dealt with at the civic level.

“It’s very perplexing to me,” longtime electoral reform proponent Shoni Field told the Courier.

Field was a member of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform back in 2004 and more recently chaired the Independent Election Task Force from 2015 to 2017. The task force ultimately delivered a 140-page report to council in January 2017 that called for a number of changes to boost voter turnout and engagement: scrapping donations from corporations, unions and non-profits, piloting an online voting trial and moving to proportional representation.

An East Vancouver resident, Field has seen the final vote tally exceed the 40 per cent threshold only twice since 1996. That happened in 2002 with 50 per cent voter turnout and in 2014, when 44 per cent of eligible voters gave Mayor Gregor Robertson another kick at the can.

Voter turnout in Vancouver elections has only passed the 40 per cent threshold twice since 1996. Pho
Voter turnout in Vancouver elections has only passed the 40 per cent threshold twice since 1996. Photo Dan Toulgoet

“It’s a whole pile of personal issues that you don’t necessarily have a personal connection to in a city like Vancouver,” Field said. “When you’re voting in a rural area, you’ve probably had a conversation with most of the candidates. You know their neighbour or their aunt. You have to make that personal connection to make it matter.”

A personal connection may be more difficult in this election than ever before, as the ballot has close to 160 names on it for mayor, council, school and park boards. Its randomized order may make it confusing for some, Field said, and overly time-consuming or stressful for others.

Her advice is to simplify, prioritize and rely on others to help with that work.

“You don’t have to know the entire platform of all the candidates, you have to recognize what’s most important to you, rather than digesting everything,” she said. “And if, say for example, the arts or renters’ rights are important to you, look to those groups who may have already asked those questions of the candidates.”

Age old question

Longtime Simon Fraser University political science professor Patrick Smith had a decidedly blunt take on the amount of time the average citizen would put into that research process.

“Zero. If not zero, maybe two or three per cent,” he said.

Smith makes a point every semester of asking his first-year political science students if they intend to vote, and the answers always come back as a 50/50 split.

“I thank them just to piss them off,” he said. “They’re kind of confused, given this is usually only the first or second class of the year. Old farts like me get my agenda looked after. It’s partly that they can’t be bothered, and it’s partly that they’re not attuned.”

That’s where change needs to occur and it’s a point that Smith, Field and University of B.C. political science professor Max Cameron all agree on — get kids involved early.

All three have varying degrees of comfort with lowering the voting age to 16. Short of that, allowing 16-year-olds to be on the voters’ list is a slam dunk for the trio, as it gets teens aware of the political sphere before they’ve left high school and, in theory, ready to vote two years later.

Cameron, Field and Smith all pointed to research suggesting those who don’t vote by their mid-20s will likely never vote at all in their lifetimes.

“Kids these days are not going to be told by their parents how to vote, I don’t think,” Cameron said. “They’ve got enough autonomy and intelligence at that age where they can vote.”

Words on encouragement

As for online voting, Smith is the lone proponent of a move to that system simply because it speaks to young people in a language they’re already fluent in. Field and Cameron, meanwhile, have misgivings around security.

“I don’t trust computers and I don’t like the idea of voting at home where maybe the father of the family would say to all the family members, ‘This is how you’re voting,”’ Cameron said.

About 20 countries across the globe have mandatory voting in place. In Australia, not voting can cost a resident anywhere from $20 to a few hundred dollars in fines.

Field worries about making voting compulsory. For starters, it’s too prescriptive and undermines the notion of civic duty. It also invites a number of spoiled ballots, as those who have no interest in politics simply show up to polling stations, draw a line through the ballot and are done with it.

Cameron is a bit warmer to the idea and could see it working. As an example, he suggested trying it federally should voter turnout consistently dip below 50 per cent. The fine could be $20 and tied to tax payments.

“We want to be careful about this, particularly at the local level where voter turnout is already low,” he said. “We could get some crazy results municipally. Maybe there the threshold is 20 or 30 per cent, where you start to think of ways of incentivizing people actually voting.”

As for the here and now, Field recognizes the task ahead for voters. Even as someone as politically aware as herself, it took Field 90 minutes to whittle through the candidates. She’s hoping others put in the same kind of legwork.

“It does require a little bit more from voters and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing,” she said. “We’re asking you to show up and put some thought into it. I’ve never met anyone who has admitted to simply voting for the first 10 names on a ballot.”

Election day is Oct. 20.


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