Analysis

Why we don't vote: low turnout for municipal elections a puzzle

Voter turnout in municipal elections in Waterloo region is traditionally low. Very low, in fact. Municipal elections always get the lowest turnout, and experts say there are a number of reasons for it.

'My job of getting myself informed is very, very difficult,' professor Robert Williams says

In 2014, the highest voter turnout in the region was in Wilmot where 40.6 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Municipal elections in Waterloo region see the lowest voter turnout of any election.

In the 2014 municipal election, the highest voter turnout was in Wilmot where 40.6 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast a ballot.

Over the the last three municipal elections, North Dumfries was the only place — once — to almost entice half the electorate to exercise their franchise. That was in 2010, when 48.6 per cent did it. Wilmot was close behind with 47 per cent.

By comparison, in the provincial general election last June, the lowest voter turnout was in Cambridge, where 56 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot.

Trending down

Leah Levac at the University of Guelph is an assistant professor of political sciences. She says looking over the last 30 years in the province, voting at municipal election has been trending down.

She believes one major reason could be the language used by candidates.

"Municipal elections are often both targeted through the language of property taxes as a key priority at people who own homes, even though everybody in some way or another pays property taxes if they're living in a dwelling," Levac said.

"But also that people who own homes tend to be the ones who are the most acutely aware of the ratio of services that they're being delivered compared to property taxes they are paying."

She said if there's not a lot of discontent with services being provided — meaning taxpayers are generally satisfied with how their municipality is operating — voting in the election isn't a priority.

With a provincial election just a few months past, voter fatigue may also be part of the reason people tend not to vote, Levac says.

But, she adds, "I'm not entirely convinced that were we to have municipal elections in years where there were not also provincial or federal elections that we would suddenly see a major increase in voter turnout at the municipal level."

'Getting myself informed is very, very difficult'

Robert Williams is interested in learning more about the candidates in his Waterloo ward.

But the political science professor emeritus from the University of Waterloo admits he's having trouble finding out much.

"And I'm interested. My job of getting myself informed is very, very difficult and if my interests are marginal at the best of times, there's virtually no way you're going to get a really engaged and insightful electorate," he said.

Williams says there's not just one, but several reasons, why voters are uninformed — which can lead to being uninterested in the election.

A municipal election is highly localized, he says. Local media outlets aren't localized anymore, he points out. Many of them cover the entire region rather than just single cities or townships. And even if they are in one city, news still tends to blur across regional boundaries.

If people aren't paying attention to the media, the only way they might even know there's an election is when they get a voter card in the mail. Williams says it would be good for the province to take a leadership role and do a "booster campaign" to remind people about municipal elections, since they all take place on the same day across Ontario.

Candidates for regional chair sat down with The Morning Edition host Craig Norris, left, on Oct. 9 to talk about the issues in this municipal election. They are, from left, Jay Aissa, Rob Deutschmann, Jan d'Ailly and Karen Redman. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Not much difference in platforms

Williams says he also can't fully fault the candidates themselves for not being more visible because many of them are working full-time jobs while also running campaigns.

They don't have the tools or financial resources "to really light everybody up."

But one of the big problems he's noticed in the elections across Waterloo region this year is candidates often agree on the issues and the ways to tackle problems. There's not much diversity when it comes to platforms.

"It's very difficult for the voters to tease apart where many of the candidates stand. And especially in the current climate which seems to be prevailing in Waterloo region … where there's not a lot of difference, there's not a lot of really pressing, divisive issues, that you have to move on beyond things to do with policy because they don't help you," he said.

"If you can't really make a distinction between them in terms of what they might stand for, then your challenge is even more complicated and you end up falling back perhaps on matters to do with 'neighbourhood factor,' the name-recognition factor, the identification question, whatever you want to call it."

'Confusing system'

Civic Tech Waterloo Region is hoping voters will turn to them to get more information on the candidates. The group was started about a year ago and their first big project has been compiling a list of candidates, their websites and social media accounts, co-founder Kristina Taylor says.

"One of the big pieces of feedback we've gotten from a lot of different people is that it's been a real struggle in the past to find consolidated information about all of the different candidates for all of the different roles," she said.

The feedback from the public has been largely positive, but people are confused, she says.

"It's a very confusing system and the multiple tiers of government doesn't really help," Taylor said.

"On any given ballot, there could be almost 2 dozen people, depending on what ward you're in."

She remembers going to vote in Wilmot in 2014 and knowing one candidate she was going to vote for, but then saw a list of names she didn't recognize. She says she's not alone.

"We've had a bit of feedback from people kind of saying, this is great that you've got this information, but I don't really understand what any of these roles do and I feel like I'm doing a job interview for somebody that I don't know what I'm hiring them into," Taylor said.

Still, people are going to the group's website to find their local candidates.

"In the last 30 days, we've had about 3,000 users on the site," she said. "We're averaging a little over 200 a day for the last week or so and there's probably about 20 per cent of those users have hit the page more than once, so clearly we're resonating with people."

It can be difficult for voters to be informed on the issues for a number of reasons, which could include lack of media coverage on hyper local issues, lack of awareness about the election and the candidates may not be getting their message out. (iStock)

Youth engagement low

One group municipal elections tend not to resonate with is younger voters, aged 18 to 29. Levac says municipal elections tend not to be on their radar.

When they are aware, she says there's often a sense of disillusionment with the process.

"We have certainly problems with our electoral system that prevent people from feeling like their voice and their vote is actually meaningfully reflected in the results of elections," she said.

Young people may not vote, but they do get involved politically. They may take part in rallies or sign petitions or write to politicians.

Levac says she and other political scientists think lowering the voting age would help engage younger voters.

"There is some research to suggest that one of the common predictors of somebody's choice to vote is actually habit and so once you become a habituated voter, you are more likely to keep voting," she said.

She disagrees with arguments of people who say youth don't know how to make those important decisions.

"I just think that sells short the capacity of young people who … in many cases have quite a strong analysis of some of the challenges they are experiencing in their lives," she says.

"We have to start by thinking of the diversity of youth and then trying to understand from their perspective what a more meaningful form of engagement looks like and how that might be affected by these other experiences."

Online voting: not magic answer

Cambridge, North Dumfries, Wellesley and Woolwich have introduced online voting this year. It's been argued internet voting makes the process easier and more people will do it.

Guelph saw a significant jump when it introduced online voting, from 33.9 per cent in 2010 to 44.97 per cent in 2014. But Guelph decided to return to traditional paper ballots for the election this year on Oct. 22 due to security concerns.

Levac, though, cautions online voting may not be the answer to getting more young people to vote.

"It's not clear that, if municipalities introduce internet voting, then the youth participation problem will be solved," she said.

"There tends often, I think, to be this assumption that if we just do whatever we're doing on an online or a virtual or a social media kind of format, then that will address the youth participation problem, and I think we're relatively clear that there may be pockets of ways in which that is true.

But in general, that is not an appropriate monolithic solution to this problem."