The vicious cycle: Why low voter turnouts might not be the voters' fault

Community leaders try to rally people and get to the polls. But how much can individuals do, ask researchers, when what's causing low voter turnout could be systemic?

Hope and pessimism in the riding that had Alberta’s lowest voter turnout last time

'Honk If You Want Rent Control.' Residents protest in front of the Conservative campaign office in east Calgary. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Political cynicism is running deep for some Calgary voters.

Terry Peterson is tired of hearing the same things over and over. He says that the next time a politician comes to the door, he should just record them. Then later, when other politicians show up, he'll have a ready response.

"I'll say: "Hold on. I'll play the tape."

"It's the same thing. Always," said Peterson. 

"Our people are so dejected," he said. 

"When they do vote and people get in, nothing happens. It's the same year after year. It just gets worse and nothing gets done," he added, having a smoke outside Mom's Cafe on 17th Avenue S.E. 

Throughout the federal election campaign, CBC Calgary has been on the streets talking to folks in the neighbourhoods of the Forest Lawn electoral district. We chose this area because in the last federal election, only 53 per cent of registered voters went to the polls — significantly fewer than the provincial average of 69 per cent. 

Other ridings in Alberta also have low voter turnout; this was the lowest.

Community volunteers and local advocates are trying to change this — trying to get voters out to the polls to make their voices heard. We'll see if that worked after Monday. But there's only so much individuals and groups can do, say researchers, when the big issues affecting the vote are systemic.

Not motivated to vote

This campaign, CBC News asked dozens of residents here whether they would be voting and what they wanted candidates to be talking about. If they planned to vote, many said they do it out of a sense of duty, regardless of whether it will have an impact or not. 

Others said they are too busy with work and family, that there was no one they wanted to vote for, or that it didn't seem like it was worth the stress to pay attention to politics.

Ashraf Khan and Emeka Nwankwor are residents in the riding of Calgary Forest Lawn. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Emeka Nwankwor stopped by the temporary CBC desk in the Village Square branch library and said he's motivated to vote but didn't receive his voting card, even though he hasn't moved in six years.

He's trying to find the right ID and says he wants to vote Conservative to support free speech: "The liberal left has made it so difficult, no one can express what they think."

Outside the library, Ashraf Khan said he turned away from politics after seeing the political violence in his previous home country of Pakistan.

It's left him feeling the political class in general is out of touch and not something he can support. But his issue is with homelessness, so he does what he can on his own, handing out food.

"The (politicians) who are on the screen, everyone knows what they need. But behind the scenes … people sleep in the dumpster," he said.

"[Unless they've gone hungry themselves] the rulers don't know nothing. I'm against the rulers."

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Khan wasn't the only one who referenced politics elsewhere as a reason they're hesitant to get involved here. But others see strength in collective action.

Chris Okuku, who spoke to CBC News while visiting the Forest Lawn Library, said this will be his first time voting after moving from Nigeria. 

He'll vote because "it's a civic obligation," he said. 

"Sometimes you say, 'OK, my vote is not going to count.' But it's the accumulation of viewpoints."

There are many reasons an individual may choose to vote, or not to vote. But there are also local community organizations working to convince people it's important to make your mark.

Chris Okuku stopped to talk with CBC News as he was visiting the Forest Lawn branch of the Calgary Public Library. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

A strategy to get people involved

The Alex Community Food Centre had a strategy to get more people voting. 

They were planning a non-partisan party — eating, live music and a walk to the polling station — but that got cancelled when Alberta declared another pandemic state of emergency.

But organizer Danielle Fitzpatrick doesn't sound discouraged, saying they now plan to celebrate local participation with a virtual after-party

Fitzpatrick moved to Calgary from Scotland. She says she was from a community that also had low voter turnout. That's why she believes helping neighbours connect with each other can help.

"We have seen so much change happening because people are mobilizing," Fitzpatrick said. "People are realizing that something happening is not just happening to them. It's not one individual's fault something is happening, it's much bigger. That is the crucial point."

There are other community organizations at work, too.

Members of a new local branch for ACORN Canada, a union for people with low and moderate incomes, have been sharing election material. They met with the incumbent Conservative candidate and organized a housing protest.

They are also trying to involve the next generation of voters.

Lucas Markon's mom brought him out for a rally on a cold and windy day. He wasn't sure about it all at first, but the Grade 9 student said it was actually "pretty fun."

"It feels like we have power. The more numbers, it feels like we can actually change things," said Markon.

Grade 9 student Lucas Markon was impressed with his first protest: 'It feels like we can actually change things.' (Elise Stolte/CBC)

'System is stacked against them'

Voting matters because there's a feedback loop in politics — one long suspected by local residents. Political science research backs this up. Multiple studies have drawn the link between who votes and whose interests are represented in the policies before parliament. Those who vote get attention.

As for the riding of Calgary Forest Lawn, the average annual employment income was $39,300 — compared with $59,300 across Alberta, according to the most recent census in 2016.

In this riding, 52 per cent of residents have a high school diploma or less. That's 36 per cent in the rest of the province. 

As for ethnic diversity, in Calgary Forest Lawn, 53 per cent of residents self-identified as from a visible minority. That compares with 23 per cent in the rest of Alberta.

An Elections Canada-commissioned study on the 2019 election found those were all factors that predicted lower turnout, both because motivation to vote was often lower and because these groups tended to perceive aspects of voting to be more difficult.

Young adults are also less likely to vote, says University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas.

But rather than focus on individual fault, we should be looking at this as a systemic issue, she argues. Politics is not focused on these groups. 

"If you are poor, party leaders don't talk about poverty. They talk about tax cuts for the middle class," she said. 

"If voting was actually seen to be an effective way to get help for things like poverty, or to move policy for things like housing.… 

"Those groups, when they tell us they think the system is stacked against them, and when they say that 'politicians and government don't care very much what people like me think,' part of me is like: Yep, I can totally see that."

That's not to criticize on-the-ground, community-building efforts, Thomas added. 

"Community organizing is great and I know why they do it," she said. "It can have incredible local effects. But if what we're dealing with are systemic structures relating to racism and poverty, then the system needs to be fixed."

CBC Calgary has been listening to people in the neighbourhoods of Calgary Forest Lawn to share perspectives that might not otherwise make the news. It resulted in election stories on job prospects in Calgary, the loss of low-rent suites, Albertans' abiding concern on the deficit and this piece on voter turnout.

Next we're turning our attention to the municipal election. We'll travel to wards across the city to build relationships and hear what local issues are on your mind. Help us get started by sharing your thoughts here.


Elise Stolte


Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal and joined CBC Calgary this summer.


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