British Columbia·Analysis

'It didn't used to be that way': Why voter turnout is so low in B.C. — and may be worse this week

Democracy may be fuelled by the will of the electorate, but in British Columbia voters seem increasingly reluctant to make their way to the ballot box — and some say that downward trend is likely to continue next week.

Antipathy among younger and low-income voters partly to blame, say experts

An advanced poll at Vancouver Community College. Advance voting rates increased during the last provincial election in B.C., but overall turnout remained low. (David Horemans/CBC)

Democracy may be fuelled by the will of the electorate, but in British Columbia voters seem increasingly reluctant to make their way to the ballot box — and some say that downward trend is likely to continue this election.

During the last provincial election in 2013, only 57.1 per cent of eligible British Columbians exercised their right to vote. It was the third-worst overall turnout in the province, despite greater participation in advance voting

It's a turnout that has been progressively diminishing for the last 30 years, In 2009, the turnout grazed 50 per cent.

View the graphic on provincial election voter turnout in B.C.

Turnout in other western provinces

Voter turnout in B.C. is similar to other provinces in Western Canada, with rates in Alberta at the bottom of the pile.

On the other hand, Yukoners have a much higher rate of participation in territorial elections. In 2016, it had the highest voter turnout in its history — nearly 80 per cent. 

View the graphic on voter turnout in Western Canada

Why don't people vote?

Norman Ruff, associate professor emeritus in political science at the University of Victoria, thinks that most of those who don't vote are discouraged by the political system. 

"If people think their vote is going to count, then they turn out and vote," Ruff said. 

"It didn't used to be that way I think largely because we've lost the sense of the obligation to vote."

For Tuesday's provincial election, he expects a voter turnout similar to 2013, or perhaps even worse.

"You sense that the government is vulnerable, you sense that people aren't completely satisfied with the B.C. Liberals, but on the other hand I don't have a sense that suddenly there's a huge change in momentum turning to the NDP as a government in waiting," Ruff said.

"It doesn't seem to be a change-driven election ... That could depress the turnout. I hope I'm mistaken." 

View the graphic on voter turnout by age group in B.C.

Creating habits

Ruff notes that voter turnout did climb during the federal election of 2015, possibly because Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau attracted younger voters.

Statistics show that younger voters don't show up at the ballot box as much as older ones. 

In 2013, the Liberals won a majority government with only 25 per cent support from all eligible voters according to Elections BC.

"The lower the turnout, the more people worry about the general health of democracy, and the potential of a demobilized army of voters about whom we know very little," said UBC political science professor Richard Johnston.

Johnston said low-income and marginalized voters are among the least likely to show up at the ballot box because they don't feel represented. 

"It's not so much because they somehow value the vote but don't exercise it, but in many ways they don't value the vote in a way that I believe is contrary to their interest," he said, citing political policies like welfare rates and social services. 

"You might argue that many of the people who are least likely to vote are the ones who would benefit most from participation in the political order." 

With files from Benoit Clément 

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