Olympic plebiscite poised to blow historical low turnout trope, says expert
Calgarians lined up to vote in advance of the plebiscite on Nov. 13
The plebiscite — officially called the Vote of the Electors — takes place on Nov. 13, but advance voting is already complete.
And Calgarians didn't trickle in to get ahead of the crowds, they lined up eager to vote on the big Olympic question:
Are you for or are you against Calgary hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games?
"I am for Calgary hosting" or "I am against Calgary hosting" are the two possible answers.
A political scientist at the University of Calgary, Jack Lucas, talked about the history of plebiscite votes and turnout on The Homestretch.
This is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: What do you make of the advance voting numbers?
A: Well, they are pretty high by plebiscite standards. If you compare them to last year's civic election, which was a record breaking turnout, about 75,000 people turned out in the advanced voting.
If you do a little back-of-the-envelope guesstimate, it suggests we maybe have a voter turnout percentage in the high 30s, maybe even low 40s for this plebiscite.
Q: Is this surprising for you?
A: Yeah, if you compare that guesstimate to past results in past Calgary plebiscites, typically those numbers are very low — especially for plebiscites that don't happen at the same time as the municipal election.
If those numbers hold, that's pretty good by municipal plebiscite standards.
Q: Why are numbers typically so low?
A: When you have a plebiscite at the same time as the municipal election, usually people will vote in it because they show up anyway. When you hold the plebiscite at a different time from the municipal election, people have to be really motivated by just that one question to go out to the voting station, wait in line and determine how they're going to vote. So often, there's just a question of motivation and voter knowledge that that keeps turnout low.
Q: It's been about 20 years since the last plebiscite, what have we seen in terms of turnouts in the past?
A: Typically in off-cycle plebiscites you're talking about somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent, very, very low rates.
In Vancouver they had low turnout off cycle plebiscites until the Olympic plebiscite, which had a 46 per cent turnout. So we were likely to see quite a bit higher for the Olympic plebiscite compared to these other ones in the past.
Q: What is it about the Olympics that draws these kinds of numbers for a plebiscite?
A: It's just a big ticket item in every sense.
People who support the Olympics are very motivated by it. They're inspired by the idea of having the Olympics in their city, people who are worried about the Olympics see the enormous price tag.
That motivates people to get out and vote. And it just gets a lot of attention in the media and in general conversation, particularly, as you've seen, in the last couple of weeks.
Q: Which side will win the debate?
A: That's the question of the hour. I think the if you're on the no side, the good news is that the polls suggest that the no side has a majority in Calgary right now.
What's more, is older folks tend to be more opposed than younger folks based on the polling data. And there was older folks are the same people who tend to turn out to vote in municipal elections more than the younger people do.
So, on the yes side, you look at those turnout numbers. And you think maybe this is just a question of motivation. And if they get our supporters to turn out to vote more than the opponents will turn out to vote, maybe they can squeak this one out.
Different voter turnout
Lucas did a little digging when he saw that this time around there were more voters than in the 2017 civic election. Here's what he found:
First of all, I've learned a lot about the details of election administration in the past few days. Big thanks to staff at the City of Calgary and Elections Alberta for patiently explaining this stuff to me. (but any mistakes here are my fault - not theirs!) /2—@lucasjacklucas
Elections Alberta maintains a permanent registry of voters, continuously updated with data from Elections Canada, Motor Vehicle registries, death registries, and other sources. They also verify and update this list with door-to-door enumeration. /4—@lucasjacklucas
Why the difference? A bit of it is population growth, and some has to do with slight differences in eligibility rules in Calgary elections and Alberta elections. But most of the difference is probably because the provincial list is just better at catching more eligible voters. /6—@lucasjacklucas
There are implications here for political scientists who want to compare turnout rates across levels of government. But the punch line for this plebiscite is that if you want to compare last year to this year, compare the *number of people who voted* in the two elections. /8—@lucasjacklucas
- MORE CALGARY NEWS | Calgary landlord refuses to pay locksmith after price nearly triples, no invoice provided
- MORE CALGARY NEWS | 3 cool things about a home with no furnace
- Read more articles by CBC Calgary, like us on Facebook for updates and subscribe to our CBC Calgary newsletter for the day's news at a glance
With files from Andrew Brown