Byelection turnout hits all-time low in Alberta

Voter turnout in the two Toronto ridings up for grabs on Monday night was only slightly below the 35 per cent average for byelections in recent years. But in the Alberta ridings of Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca, numbers plunged to historic new lows. Kady O'Malley has more.

Voter participation in Fort McMurray-Athabasca hits all-time low at 15.9%

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and Trinity-Spadina candidate Adam Vaughan, are pictured in Toronto on May 22, prior to Vaughan being chosen as the riding's MP. (Canadian Press)

Despite widespread concern that election-weary Torontonians would be tempted to take a pass on Monday's byelections in favour of an extended four-day Canada Day weekend, voter turnout in Trinity-Spadina and Scarborough-Agincourt was only slightly below the 35 per cent average for off-season votes since 2007.

But in Alberta, those numbers plunged to historic new lows, particularly in the oilsands-rich riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca, which now holds the dubious record of the worst byelection turnout in modern Canadian political history.

Only 15.9 per cent of eligible voters — 12,708 of the 83,647 on the registered voter list — were sufficiently motivated to cast a ballot in Monday's byelection, according to preliminary reports from Elections Canada.

Just 5,945 — or 46 per cent — of those chose to stick with the Conservatives, but the deflated turnout numbers meant that was more than enough to secure David Yurdiga the House of Commons seat vacated by former MP Brian Jean.

Liberal hopeful Kyle Harrietha pulled in 4,491 votes, which netted him a 35 per cent share of the total, albeit dwindled, vote.

Another 1,449 backed New Democrat Lori McDaniel and 449 chose to go with Green contender Brian Deheer.

To put those numbers in perspective, it's worth noting that in 2011, Jean cruised to victory with 21,988 votes — just over 71 per cent of the total, and one of the highest margins of victory in the country. New Democrat Berend Wilting came in a distant second, with 4,053 votes, leaving Liberal hopeful Karen Young to languish in third, with a final tally of 3,190 votes.

Not only did Harrietha manage to cut Yurdiga's margin of victory from 58 percentage points to 12, but he increased his party's raw vote tally by just over 1,000 votes — the only candidate, in fact, to see a jump in voter support.

'Difficult to get voters out for a byelection'

That relatively modest hike, combined with the dramatic 16,000 vote drop by the Conservatives, was enough to tighten the gap between the two parties to make the Fort McMurray-Athabasca race the closest in the country on Monday night.

"It’s always difficult to get voters out for a byelection," Cory Hann told CBC News.

"That’s why we focus our entire campaign on identifying our supporters and encouraging them to get out and vote."

Neither he nor the Prime Minister's Office would comment on whether the timing of the vote may have depressed party efforts to get supporters to the polls, although PMO spokesman Jason MacDonald did point out that there were "nearly 40 days of voting available" over the course of the seven-week campaign.

Liberal Party spokesperson Olivier Duchesneau says it's up to the prime minister to explain why he picked such an inopportune date for the vote.

"He's the one who called the byelections for the Monday of a long weekend in July," he told CBC News.

"Clearly, he thought the low turnout would be to his advantage."

He stressed that his party worked hard in all four ridings.

"We're pretty proud of the results."

The turnout numbers were slightly better in Macleod, where 19.59 per cent of eligible voters — 18,027 of the 92,007 on the list — taking part in Monday's vote.

Of those who made it to the polls, 12,000 voted for the winning Conservative candidate, John Barlow, another 3,008 backed Liberal Dustin Fuller, 1,042 cast their ballots for Green candidate Larry Ashmore and 766 supported New Democrat Aileen Burke.

As was the case in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, the Liberals were the only party to see an increase in both its share of the vote and raw voter numbers from 2011, when Liberal Nicole Hankel wound up in fourth place, with just 1,898 votes.

Turnout highest in Trinity-Spadina

Compared to the lacklustre turnout in Alberta, Trinity-Spadina was a veritable hotbed of democracy. By the time the polls closed on Monday night, fully 32 per cent of the eligible electorate — or, 34,677 of 109,114 registered voters — had weighed in on who should fill the seat left vacant by former New Democrat MP turned mayoral candidate Olivia Chow.

Only one candidate whose party appeared on the ballot in 2011 was able to increase both his share of the vote and his raw support numbers — Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who garnered 18,434 votes — 3,158 more than his predecessor Christine Innes was able to muster up during the last general election.

New Democrat contender Joe Cressy pulled in just over 11,823 votes — a drop of 23,778 votes from 2011, with the Green and Conservative candidates also experiencing mild to middling slides in support.

Finally, in Scarborough-Agincourt, the voter participation numbers were a few points lower than Trinity-Spadina, with just 29 per cent of the 73,705 registered voters exercising their franchise on Monday.

Even at that rate, however, turnout was still well within normal parameters, as far as byelection turnout since 2007 — a wee bit higher than Calgary Centre's much-hyped three-way race in 2012, and just below New Westminster-Coquitlam's ballot haul in 2009.

So what, if anything, can be drawn from the above data?

First, and possibly foremost, that with all due caveats about mistaking the byelection map for the general electoral territory, the Liberals ended the evening with one more seat in the House of Commons than they'd had going into it, and can even point to growth in terms of raw support numbers.

The Conservatives can comfort themselves with the fact that they didn't actually lose any seats — and that even the apparently close race in Fort McMurray-Athabasca was largely due to less than successful get-out-the-vote efforts, and not necessarily a groundswell of support for Justin Trudeau.

About the Author

Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.