Low voter turnout

November 18, 2008 at 3:02 pm | In guerilla_politics, ideas, innovation, leadership, local_not_global, politics, victoria | 8 Comments

Last Saturday, British Columbia held municipal elections.  Here in Victoria and the other 12 surrounding municipalities that together comprise the CRD (Capital Regional District), we too voted.

There’s a problem, though: the turnout is low, low, low.

The City of Victoria managed to get just under 22% of eligible voters to cast a ballot; Saanich: 21%; Oak Bay (slightly higher): just under 36%; Esquimalt: just under 27%.  Those are the four “core” municipalities; I won’t go into the slightly more distant suburbs/ municipalities (tricky to define, anyway: the Western Communities are a hub of their own, with Langford as their center).

I tried getting people engaged, and thought in particular about younger voters.  It’s a cliche that in Victoria, you have to get the seniors vote, because they’re the ones who actually bother.  (I wonder if Oak Bay’s much higher turnout had something to do with its demographics: many people retire to that community, although I have to add it’s also home to many younger families — if they can afford to get into Oak Bay’s housing market.)  Younger people, so goes the cliche (which looks to be true), don’t vote.

And yet there were a couple of outstanding young campaigners in Victoria’s election (who didn’t get that many votes, though).  What’s going on?  By a wide margin, the incumbents got back in, and the newbies that were elected are the folks endorsed by the (in my opinion pro-status quo) labour union (long story on that, see my entry from Nov.11).

How do we get progressive people to vote, and how do we move beyond the binary partisanship of “left” and “right” (the status quo)?

Well, according to this letter to the editor in today’s Times-Colonist, we really don’t need to worry or bother:

Low turnout no problem
Times Colonist
Published: Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The concern about poor voter turnout is unnecessary.

For many different reasons, not all of the population is always able to vote responsibly.

It seems best to leave these important decisions to the percentage of the population that does have the time, the interest and the ability to keep informed about the candidates and the issues.

Democracy works well if those who can vote responsibly do so, and those who know that they are not sufficiently informed to vote responsibly (for whatever reason) leave the decisions to others.
Mary Douthwaite

This letter really pissed me off.

I wish it would piss off all the younger disengaged puppies who didn’t bother to vote.  The letter writer is basically telling you that you’re too stupid to vote, which is why you don’t, and that we who do vote shouldn’t worry that you don’t vote.  Why?  Because we are informed and we know what’s right, and you don’t.

Wow, with a defense of democracy like that, who needs detractors?

Ok, young people of Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, and Oak Bay (and beyond): are you too stupid to be informed?  Do you need us (who vote) to do it for you?

Or do we just not have your attention?

What gives?  Let’s devise a campaign that gets your attention, then.  Make some suggestions, for god’s sake.

I propose viral campaigning, at least one full year before the election takes place.  Like, the kids love pizza, right?  How about re-branding pizza boxes in a stealth “raise-awareness-campaign,” like The Economist did in the Philadelphia area?

As part of their “Get a World View” campaign, The Economist distributed branded pizza boxes through 20 pizzerias in the Greater Philadelphia area. Each box displays one of a handful of pie charts that show a statistic related to world food distribution, with an emphasis on those used in pizza production. They list things like global wheat consumption, world cheese imports and arable crop land. (SOURCE)

How about getting people to notice — at whatever level of consciousness, whether pizza boxes or pub coasters — that municipal governance is a huge issue?

Maybe get them to notice cool innovative stuff that mobilizes their interest in social media?  How about a wiki where users can go in and tweak government?  (It would have to have constraints that tell users when they’re in contravention of the BC Municipal Act and other provincial legislation, but basically it would allow some “blue sky” thinking while showing what the actual constraints are).

Those are just a couple of ideas.  There are many more.  Even lying in bed with sinusitis (again!) I can come up with better ideas than the worn-out old paternalism expressed in that letter.


  1. Democracy works well when everyone is involved to the degree they feel comfortable with, agreed.

    However, we should be worrying about how to encourage people to vote and be involved, not suggest that it’s best left to “others”.

    With Mary’s thinking, you’ll get nothing but special interest groups running the show. If people aren’t feeling like they are informed enough, then the candidates didn’t do a very good job of delivering their message.

    I don’t want a *minority* group that’s well organized taking control of the majority of power.

    Comment by Mak — November 18, 2008 #

  2. Right.
    Here’s something I came across today in an older blog post by Stephen Rees. It was a comment made by “Meredith” to his post on vote plumping in the Vancouver municipal campaign. Meredith wrote:

    After decades of cynicism I believe there is a real hunger in the population for leaders who are devoted to the electorate instead of to shallow self-aggrandizement or idealogical myopia. An honest politician (admittedly now an endangered species, especially with the advent of respect amongst pundits for hard-nosed engineered political strategy) with the right message will probably go a longs ways.

    It’s the segment I bolded that strikes me as especially true.
    Call it narcissism, call it a need for love, but everyone wants to be loved. Somehow, the politicians aren’t convincing the electorate that they love us, that they’re doing it for us. We had some appeals to “community,” and to “the city,” wherein candidates express a love of this place, and call that the reason they’re in the race.
    But like appeals to country and to patriotism, that can get stale quickly — especially if the voter also feels a bit alienated from the patriotic love-fest because they’re not convinced that declaring love of place translates as love of the people in that place. If on the other hand a candidate managed to convince you (potential voter) that s/he’s doing it for you, then it’s a game-changer (Obama, anyone?). That’s also sometimes a feature of charisma (which derives from the Greek word for gift or divine favour). We haven’t exactly had many politicians who make us feel gifted or divinely favoured by their love, that’s for sure.

    Comment by Yule — November 18, 2008 #

  3. I did not realize that our turnout was so abysmally low. You ask a fine question Yule.

    I can speak for a lot of my friends – we just don’t know enough about the issues to feel engaged. I think it is changing though. This is the most attention I have ever given to a municipal election and part of it is because of being able to read Robert’s blog and feeling that connection there. I shared the posts on this topic by Google Reader and I know some of my colleagues and friends caught wind of some of the things going on that they otherwise would not have.

    One thing that I think would help voter turn out is more pro-active voter registration. This enables mind-share of the election and simultaneously removes barriers to entry on the day of the election. People want things that are easy and intuitive these days. I find the federal and provincial elections are much more engaging for voters than the municipal ones. I understand there are different levels of infrastructure there but surely municipal elections should be treated as if they are important enough for at least these basic things.

    Comment by davin — November 19, 2008 #

  4. The Internet is the only thing that levelled the playing field. My blog was averaging around 75 hits a day in the weeks leading up to the election and a couple hundred hits a day the last few days. The day of the election I spiked at 581.

    Perhaps more frequent blogging (I wasn’t quite able to do it every day like Gregory Hartnell) might have boosted those numbers but there’s a risk of overloading with minutiae and losing the big picture a website is supposed to convey.

    I used the Internet, e-mail, lawn signs, brochures and old-fashioned door knocking. All were unsatisfactory in their own way. But combined they seemed to work. I got 3,737 votes, good enough to earn me “first runner-up” position but well back of the winners.

    Comment by Robert Randall — November 19, 2008 #

  5. Robert there is no doubt that your accomplishment is something to be proud of. Will you be running again?

    Comment by davin — November 20, 2008 #

  6. Davin, there’s already a Facebook group, Robert Randall for Victoria City Council in 2011 – and I sent you an invite! I really like your comments regarding getting more voter interest, and while I don’t rely on Google Reader much myself (I’m a Diigo girl), I think I’ll use Reader (which has a greater general mindshare) to share those blogposts that I want to spread, especially to my local Victoria peeps. Well, ok, right now it’s post-election and quiet time. But by 2010 I’d like some strategy in place, especially considering that there might not be any openings on council (unlike this year, when 3 seats became available). If, in 2011, new candidates are running against an all-incumbent council, it’s going to be nearly Mission Impossible – unless it’s really really well planned/ executed. And one does wonder whether the prize is really worth all that effort (particularly in terms of actual power/ ability to effect change).

    Comment by Yule — November 20, 2008 #

  7. Hey Yule,

    Thanks for the heads up. I get invited to a lot of groups on the ol’ Facebook so I generally don’t join any unless there is some followup outside of The Book.

    I have posted on the wall now.


    Comment by davin — November 21, 2008 #

  8. Yay, Davin!
    There was an interesting letter in yesterday’s Times-Colonist about the turnout: How to improve turnout: Bring voting into this century by Matteus Clement, a Camosun College student (with his own media/ photography business). He wrote:

    Has anyone thought about lack of time as a reason for falling voting turnout? The Times Colonist reported that Oak Bay had the best turnout of the larger local municipalities at 36 per cent.

    Oak Bay is an area rich in homeowners and retirees, groups who have time and vested interests in their areas. I am 26, a student who works on the side. When in the single voting day can I run back to the area I live to vote?

    We are running a 19th century “democratic” voting system that is appealing to a select few, not the masses. In the 21st century, all of us can agree that we are busier than ever. A primarily one-day voting system, both locally and nationally, doesn’t make sense. (There is an advanced voting system that is cumbersome.)

    In an age of instant communication, the Internet and cellphones, why do we still use such an archaic system? Why don’t we have voting booths at the universities and colleges?

    Compulsory voting is always an option and is already in place in a number of countries.

    We can’t blame this turnout on “people who don’t care” or “youth who don’t come out.” I say that we start looking at a system that is 150 years old.

    He has a point about Oak Bay: its residents have the vested interest, and can make the time. But students working in one municipality, going to school in yet another, and living in a third might find it really difficult to get back home in time to vote. The other idea he brings up which is worth exploring is voter registration drives. Since I voted in the 2005 election, my voter registration (with all the information about where the different polling stations are) arrived in the mail, and included info regarding which pieces of ID will serve. But I know from talking in particular to younger voters that location of polling stations and how to go about voting was a mystery.

    Comment by Yule — November 21, 2008 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Theme: Pool by Borja Fernandez.
Entries and comments feeds.