British Columbia

In B.C., voter turnout is always lower for municipal elections. How can this be changed?

The issue of poor voter turnout in municipal elections isn’t unique to B.C. and has to do primarily with low civic engagement, leaders and experts say.

More needs to be done to engage younger voters and renters, experts and municipal leaders say

A group of masked voters are seen lined up outside a polling station.
Voters line up outside a polling station during the 2021 federal election. In B.C., municipal elections always see lower turnout than provincial and federal votes, even though municipal politics has arguably a greater influence on people's day-to-day lives. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In British Columbia, voter turnout in municipal elections has lagged far behind federal and provincial votes — even in general elections that were affected by the pandemic.

In 2018, nearly 36 per cent of eligible voters in B.C. cast their ballots in their local elections.

It's a far cry from the federal turnouts in 2019 and 2021, where well over three-quarters of eligible voters came out to the polls.

Even in the 2020 provincial election, amid pandemic restrictions, more than half of B.C.'s eligible voters turned out to vote.


The issue of poor voter turnout in municipal elections has to do primarily with low civic engagement, leaders and experts say, and the issue isn't unique to B.C. 

"We're a stable democracy and, you know, sometimes when things are going well, we tend to take for granted what we have," said outgoing New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté.

"But, I think from my perspective, [that's] all the more reason for us to stay engaged, to participate in our democratic elections."

New Westminster had one of the lowest voter turnouts in Metro Vancouver last election, at just 27 per cent, compared to the regional average of just over 39 per cent.


But within the low turnout figures, Coté says, one demographic group tends to vote more than others — richer, older people.

"We also find that renters actually vote a lot less than the owners," he added. "In many respects, [municipal] services are equally — if not more — important for younger members of the community, or for renters.

"I think more work needs to be done to connect and engage those demographics [with] the importance of local governments."

Would a different voting system help?

Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Quest University in Squamish, B.C., says municipal issues often don't get the same sustained attention that politics in Victoria or Ottawa does.

"[Low turnout] is, at least in part, a function of the lack of day-to-day awareness of what's happening in city politics," he said.

"There's some irony in that. When you think about the things that affect us in our day-to-day lives, it is municipal government first and foremost."

For example, municipalities in B.C. are responsible for zoning and deciding what housing gets built, for funding schools, and for park and facilities management, among other things.

Across the province, councillors and mayors are largely selected using the at-large voting system, which sees candidates trying to appeal to their entire community, instead of residents of particular wards.

Prest says a ward system might lead to some voters feeling better represented, and a higher turnout, as there would be a more local representative for their neighbourhood.

But he cautions that the system would have trade-offs.


"It would simplify the choice, but people may not be terribly happy with the choice once all is said and done," he said. 

"It really moves the focus — from candidates putting together arguments for what the city needs, to what [their] particular corner of this city needs."

Too many candidates?

Mario Canseco, president of polling firm Research Co., says the overwhelming number of people running for office at the municipal level in places like Vancouver and Surrey is turning off some voters.

"I think the [municipal] parties become confusing too, because in some municipalities you don't have parties and then in some you do, but they don't align with parties anywhere else," he said.

Canseco says that — apart from the currently unfeasible idea of amalgamation in B.C.'s bigger cities — a way to reduce the number of candidates, and make scanning a ballot easier, would be to raise the eligibility bar.

A stone slab with the words 'Vancouver City Hall'.
Mario Canseco says a record number of candidates running in places like Vancouver and Surrey could depress voter turnout. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

"If you want to run for council [in Vancouver], you only need 25 signatures and $100," he said.

"It's quite ridiculous to have a system in which you have 25 friends who will sign your papers every four years, and then you'll become a candidate."

Canseco and Prest both said municipalities have to do a good job of engagement even after election cycles. They should particularly try to reach young voters and teenagers, given that research shows a good predictor of future voting is voting in one's first election.

A ballot and a barbecue

Prest also talked about the idea of mandatory voting, something that's in place in Australia. He says it would improve turnout, but that voters ultimately might not take it seriously if they're simply compelled to vote.

"Mandatory voting is based on the idea of sanctions. You can also talk about incentives," he said. "It could be financial. You could look at, say, if you turn out to vote, you get a small tax break or something like that.

"But even aside from that, you could say we're just going to try to make the experience a more meaningful one, even a pleasurable one."

Prest again points to Australia, where elections are often accompanied by barbecues and a community atmosphere.

"It's a bit like a civic holiday," he said. "You can be quite creative about ways to try to incentivize people's practice of voting."

Corrections

  • A previous version of a chart in this story incorrectly gave the B.C.-wide turnout in the 2018 municipal elections as 39 per cent. In fact, the figure was 41.95 per cent.
    Oct 03, 2022 11:49 AM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Akshay Kulkarni

Journalist

Akshay Kulkarni is a journalist who has worked at CBC British Columbia since 2021. Based in Vancouver, he has covered breaking news, and written features about the pandemic and toxic drug crisis. He is most interested in data-driven stories. You can email him at akshay.kulkarni@cbc.ca.

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