Nfld. & Labrador

Record-low voter turnout seen as 'a huge problem'

Political scientist Steve Tomblin says the low turnout in Monday's election was a result of a campaign that lacked substance and failed to connect with voters.

"I don't think people are really fatigued, I think they're just turned off," says political scientist

Steve Tomblin says that low voter turnout is not good for democracy. (CBC)

Voter turnout at Monday's provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador sure didn't set any records for a high turnout. 

It did, however, set a record for a low one. Just 55.2 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. 

We tend to have politicians that often play politics … and it turns the public off.- Steve Tomblin

"I think it's a huge problem," Steve Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial University, said in an interview Wednesday. 

Tomblin said the low turnout was the direct result of a campaign that lacked substance and didn't connect with voters.

"I don't think there was a lot of excitement, said Tomblin, comparing politics to hockey.

"People kind of become disconnected and don't trust government and they don't feel that the game is exciting enough to pay attention."

He simply said if teams aren't getting results, the game isn't exciting enough for people to show up. and this can weigh heavily on the democratic system as a whole.

Lack of focus

Tomblin said the province has many issues and problems that the parties could have highlighted but unlike the federal campaign, there was a lack of focus.

In the federal election, he said, voters saw Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau clearly identify the problems with the Harper government. 

The focus on specific areas like science, climate control and refugees got people interested and paying attention. 

Voting Monday in St. John's West. (CBC)

"We saw a lot more conviction, a lot more focus in terms of the problems that were being created by the Harper government and voters turned out … because they were energized, they were excited," said Tomblin.

"If they really want to engage the public, they need to reach out to the public, they need to provide specifics in terms of what huge problems were facing in the province with the collapse in energy prices and the fiscal imperative," he said. 

Politics trumps public policy but I think that's bad for the public.- Steve Tomblin

Tomblin felt the provincial campaign lacked those details and the party platforms focused on ideas that have been around for decades.

He added that voters may have felt a bit of political fatigue because of the recent federal election but people seemed to be more tuned out than tired.

"I don't think people are really fatigued — I think they're just turned off," said Tomblin. 

"People will go to the mall for 10 hours, they will party until four or five in the morning — how difficult is it to walk into a ballot box and mark your X?"

Paul Davis acknowledged late in the campaign that his priority was to win in his own district. (CBC)

Local race a priority

He said the polls also made people feel there wasn't much of a race and that the winner was already determined.

However, towards the end of the race, he said many candidates like Paul Davis and Steve Kent focused primarily on their districts and mobilized people to get out and vote. 

This landed the PCs in a much better position for the Opposition than had been predicted and may have played a role in the higher turnout in selected areas.

"It became almost a campaign at a local level and they kind of weren't part of the bigger race," said Tomblin.

Change needed

Tomblin said, for the most part, the public wasn't paying attention during the campaign, and the parties lacked aggressiveness.

"The game kind of determines behaviour, and politics trumps public policy, but I think that's bad for the public," said Tomblin.

"We tend to have politicians that often play politics and they don't provide the details and it turns the public off, and it really kind of undermines the legitimacy of the decision making process itself."

"I think the game is designed for those in positions of power and I think there needs to be a lot of discussion on how we can change that."

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