BRITISH COLUMBIA

BC Voter Turnout Low Despite Multimedia Awareness Campaigns

05/15/2013 08:25 EDT | Updated 07/15/2013 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - This week's provincial election in British Columbia was the first chance 18-year-old Merwa Almalike had to vote since she became eligible almost a year ago.

But like so many people her age, she didn't. In fact, she wasn't entirely sure whether she was even old enough to cast a ballot.

"I felt too lazy — I don't really pay attention to politics," said Almalike, while out for a walk through downtown Vancouver on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm sure it affects me, but at the same time, I don't really notice it."

The night before, the province's governing Liberals pulled off a shocking victory, winning a majority government with 44 per cent of the popular vote.

The initial totals put voter turnout at just 52 per cent — slightly better than last year's record low of 51 per cent, but continuing the abysmal voter turnout rates that have plagued federal, provincial and municipal elections across the country. The final turnout rate is expected to increase by at least several percentage points after absentee ballots are counted.

Academics and pundits have a list of competing theories about why turnout remains so low, but many focus on the continuing inability to convince young people to vote.

In the 2009 provincial election, just 39 per cent of registered voters aged 18 to 24 cast ballots. For all registered voters under 45, the figure is 42 per cent. And younger voters typically aren't registered, either. In 2009, only 69 per cent of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 were actually on the voters' list.

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BC Election Night Photos

Even Almalike, who is blunt about the fact that she just doesn't pay attention to politics, can spot the trend.

"There are plenty of people who don't vote, and I think they're probably around my age, too," she said. "They haven't really experienced life, they don't really know yet. Once they get older, they'll have an understanding and they'll probably vote."

Elections BC staged a massive public awareness campaign ahead of Tuesday's vote, blanketing the province with posters, TV and radio commercials, and social media content telling voters — particularly younger British Columbians — how to vote.

Voters could cast their ballots pretty much whenever they wanted during the campaign, either by visiting district electoral offices, dropping by one of the many advanced polling stations last week, or visiting any polling station — regardless of what riding it was located in — on Tuesday.

Don Main of Elections BC says it's too early to tell whether the campaign worked.

He noted absentee ballots boosted the turnout in 2009 by roughly five percentage points in the weeks following the election, and he expects those ballots will account for even more votes this year.

"We don't know what the final number is yet," he said Wednesday.

"So far, we're better than 2009, and if that was because of our public awareness campaign, that's great. I think Elections BC did the job it needed to do, which was get the information out to all British Columbians."

Paul Kershaw, a University of British Columbia researcher who runs the campaign Generation Squeeze, says he thinks politicians have spent years ignoring younger voters, who in turn are ignoring the entire process.

Kershaw said neither the governing Liberals nor the NDP offered much in their platforms to appeal to younger voters, whether they are university students or couples starting new families.

"There wasn't a huge amount of difference — both parties were advocating corporate income taxes to pay for more spending, and most of that spending was going into retirees and health-care but very little to young people," he said in an interview.

"And I think the election results confirm that many in the younger generation are going to continue to opt out of the process when there is little choice between the incumbents and opposition on the issues that matter for them."

Kershaw said other possibilities include the theory that some New Democrats, who were given a false sense of security by opinion polls that showed a comfortable NDP lead, simply stayed home out of a sense of complacency.

The problem of low voter turnout isn't unique to B.C.

Turnout in the last federal election, in 2011, was about 61 per cent. An election in Ontario in the same year saw turnout dip below half, with just 49 per cent casting ballots.

Last year's election in Alberta — which, like the B.C. vote, saw a ruling party that was widely expected to lose pull off a surprising victory — saw a turnout of 54 per cent.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said he's not too concerned about the low voter turnout rates.

He said they may just be a sign that Canada's political system is stable and voters are relatively happy with their government.

"It suggests that people don't see much significance (in what the government is doing) and that life is not that bad," said Wiseman.

"If they think the choices in the election are really fundamental and are going to affect them in a really fundamental way, they're going to turn out."

Canada ranks among the lowest in voter turnout in western countries, with jurisdictions such as Belgium and Denmark seeing rates of 80 per cent or higher, though Wiseman said those places are also seeing dropping numbers.

He noted that even in Australia, where compulsory voting laws include fines of $20 to $50 for not voting, nearly 20 per cent of the population doesn't vote — and those numbers are also decreasing.

In contrast, new democracies such as those in Eastern Europe or regions with political instability, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, tend to see high voter turnouts, he said.

In Canada, the highest turnout in recent memory was in Quebec for the province's 1995 sovereignty referendum, when 94 per cent of voters cast ballots.

"Did the people in Quebec want a referendum? Were they celebrating? No, the reason it was 94 per cent was because there were substantial stakes involved," he said.

"Democracy is a lot more than my right to vote. That's part of it, but much more important is being able to say what I want, having freedom of the press, having a system that isn't corrupt, having the rule of law. Those are the things that count, and none of those things are going to be affected by this election."