How can Hamilton boost its voter turnout?

Sam Merulla wants to offer voters an incentive to boost turnout. But no one knows what that might be.
Hamilton's voter turnout this week was only 34.02 per cent. The city is grappling with how to increase that. (CBC)

He doesn’t want to give voters money.

In fact, he’s not exactly sure what he wants to give people to encourage them to use their democratic right to vote.

But after voter turnout in this week’s municipal election was only 34.02 per cent, Coun. Sam Merulla wants to give people something.

When city council resumes in December, the Ward 4 councillor will introduce a motion to look at some sort of pilot project to boost voter turnout in Hamilton's municipal elections. He wants to put some money aside if necessary and have staff study options.

While his initial idea was to offer an honorarium, he’s since revised that.

“We need to look at what incentive we can develop to increase voter turnout,” said Merulla, an incumbent who was elected with about 80 per cent of the vote. Of the 23,287 eligible voters in Ward 4, only 6,956 cast a vote, or 29.87 per cent.

As for what that incentive might be, “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s why we need a study. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Merulla wasn’t the only one disappointed that only 124,550 of the city’s 366,124 eligible voters cast a ballot.

Generational shift?

Mayor-elect Fred Eisenberger campaigned on looking into online voting, which he believes will boost turnout. He called Monday’s turnout “disappointing.”

“We need to sit down with our education partners and start talking about educating kids through Grade 1 to Grade 12 that every time there’s an election, they engage, they learn about the candidates and they vote,” he said. “Voting is a learned behaviour.”

Peter Graefe, a McMaster University political scientist, said the turnout was low — about six percentage points lower than 2010. But it wasn’t markedly lower than other elections.

Graefe speculates that it’s a generational shift. There’s been a decrease in voter turnout in provincial and federal elections that “now seems to have eaten into the core of voters in municipal elections.”

This municipal election lacked “big mayor issues” — the most noteworthy one was light rail transit — and many ward challengers didn’t mobilize voters.

Electronic voting “captures the busy voter, but it doesn’t capture the disaffected voter,” he said.

Some areas fine people who don’t vote, Graefe said. That provides “a negative incentive.”

Lowest turnout in Ward 2

Graefe suggests a campaign financing structure to give incumbents less of an advantage, which would make the races closer. Most of the incumbents in the last election won handily, he said.

But "if (the voter incentive) isn’t money, then what is it?” he said. “An apple? It’s hard to know what that incentive would be.”

Merulla believes there is one. It can’t be punitive, he said. “That’s disempowering.”

“The issue is that we should have more people engaged.”

Ward-by-ward results show no significant difference in voter turnout between wards that didn't have incumbents and wards that did. 

Ward 13 in Dundas had the highest voter turnout, while Ward 2 in downtown Hamilton had the lowest.

City council has its inaugural meeting on Dec. 3.


Voter turnout by ward

  • Ward 1: Chedoke-Cootes — 40.74 per cent
  • Ward 2: Downtown — 29.04
  • Ward 3: Hamilton Centre — 29.59
  • Ward 4: East Hamilton — 29.87
  • Ward 5: Redhill — 33.64
  • Ward 6: East Mountain — 35.15
  • Ward 7: Central Mountain — 31.75
  • Ward 8: West Mountain — 36.29
  • Ward 9: Heritage Stoney Creek — 34.20
  • Ward 10: Stoney Creek — 37.40
  • Ward 11: Glanbrook, Stoney Creek, Winona — 33.61
  • Ward 12: Ancaster — 35.90
  • Ward 13: Dundas — 43.79
  • Ward 14: Wentworth — 33.41
  • Ward 15: Flamborough — 27.88