Fewer people tend to vote in municipal elections in Edmonton than in Calgary. We look at why

When it comes to municipal elections in Alberta, data shows that Calgary usually has a higher voter turnout than Edmonton. There are several theories as to why, but political analysts say competition may be the difference-maker.

Experts have several theories, including one that suggests competitive races create more intrigue

Edmonton saw 37.6 per cent of voters cast a ballot in the 2021 municipal election. It's the fifth election in a row that the city has had a lower turnout than Calgary. (Cort Sloan/CBC)

More Edmontonians cast a ballot in this year's municipal election than in the four elections prior, but overall turnout was higher in Calgary ― again.

According to Edmonton Elections, the turnout in the Oct. 18 election was 37.6 per cent.

The 2021 Calgary election had a voter turnout of 46.36 per cent. Data shows that this follows a pattern since at least 1983 ― the oldest year publicly available to compare both cities ― where Calgary usually has higher turnout than Edmonton. Sometimes significantly so.

There are several hypotheses about why this may occur, political experts say. But there is a theory that suggests competitive races create a sense of urgency and drama that engages people.

"People in Calgary have just come to expect fiery municipal elections and it engages them. Edmontonians are just used to more subdued municipal elections," said Janet Brown, a pollster and political commentator.

Competition drives turnout

"Competitive elections tend to drive turnout," said Jack Lucas, a University of Calgary political science associate professor.

Data shows about a third of eligible voters in Edmonton usually vote municipally. There have been a few years where that trend wavered: In 1992, Jan Reimer faced a tight race for re-election against Bill Smith. There was a 51.7 per cent turnout.

In 2007, Stephen Mandel won re-election by a large margin, with just over 27 per cent turnout.

In Calgary, turnout fluctuates more often ― yet the city usually has a higher turnout than Edmonton. There have been 13 municipal elections since 1983. Calgary topped Edmonton's voter turnout in eight of them, including the last five.

Sometimes the turnouts have been close, such as in 2001 when Calgary saw 37.7 per cent of voters versus just over 35 per cent in Edmonton.

Other times, less so. In 2017, Calgary saw a voter turnout of 58.1 per cent ― nearly 27 per cent more than Edmonton, which hasn't seen a turnout that high since 1966, when 59.9 per cent of voters cast their ballots.

Calgary calculates voter turnout using the number of eligible voters provided by Elections Alberta, a city spokesperson said.

Edmonton Elections has relied on estimated voter information gathered through the municipal census in past elections.

That information was unavailable for the recent election, so the number of eligible voters was estimated based on city and provincial statistics, according to a city spokesperson.

Data shows about a third of eligible voters in Edmonton usually vote municipally. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Tight races make voters think there's 'more at stake'

Brown has led focus groups with voters following the municipal election in an effort to gauge how they felt about it and how engaged they were.

Her research has led her to form a few hypotheses about why voter turnout was higher in Calgary, such as the plebiscite about reintroducing fluoride into the city's drinking water, which she said may have spurred more people to get out to the polls. 

But one theory seems to hold up: tight electoral races are more engaging.

Though there was less polling conducted in Edmonton, Brown said the consensus was that Amarjeet Sohi, who won the race, was the clear favourite. The focus group participants she has spoken with don't remember the Edmonton election as being very interesting. 

In Calgary, Jyoti Gondek received about 45 per cent of the vote and comfortably became mayor-elect. But leading up to Oct. 18, Brown says polls suggested it would be a tight race between Gondek and Jeromy Farkas.

"There's the perception that there's more at stake," she said.

"If it's a close race, you're more likely to think that your vote could have a determining factor."

Calgary's mayor-elect Jyoti Gondek, left, and Mayor Naheed Nenshi meet earlier this week. Polls suggested Calgary's municipal election would be a tight race between Gondek and her nearest competitor, something one analyst believes contributed to a voter turnout of 46.36 per cent. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Fireworks and hype drive engagement

To show how that holds true, Brown pointed to the four previous Calgary elections.

In 2013, Mayor Naheed Nenshi was the incumbent and cruised to another term, she said. Data shows voter turnout was about 39.4 per cent that year.

But the 2010, 2017 and 2021 elections "had a lot of fireworks" and data shows each saw higher voter turnouts.

Brown likened political engagement to the TV show Ted Lasso ― once there was hype, people watched.

"With more buzz, there's more people engaging, there's more people forming opinions. And if you've got an opinion about the election, you're going to go vote," she said.

"If you're not paying attention and you haven't developed an opinion, you're not going to go vote."


Nicholas Frew is an online reporter with CBC Edmonton who focuses mainly on data-driven stories. Hailing from Newfoundland and Labrador, Frew moved to Halifax to attend journalism school. He has previously worked for CBC newsrooms in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC, he interned at the Winnipeg Free Press. You can reach him at nick.frew@cbc.ca.


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