Saanich News

Why we don’t vote

Experts weigh in on low municipal voter turnout and what it might take to change

A slow response to a fire, the closing of your child’s school, the cull of neighbourhood rabbits and deer. It’s hard to predict what issue will one day hit close enough to home to draw a voter out to the polls for municipal elections.

Local governments tend to make more decisions that directly affect our everyday lives. But, experts say, voters might need to become more personally affected by the issues before they care about who they want navigating their community.

In the 2008 election, just 20.6 per cent of Saanich voters – 17,240 out of an eligible 83,638 – cast a ballot.

“When the water isn’t running, or the lights are off, or the police don’t get there fast enough… (people) realize local government does have a lot to do with their quality of life,” said Michael J. Prince, professor of social policy at the University of Victoria. “But we take it for granted because it’s more or less well-run most of the time,”

Other hurdles, such as a lack of education on local government at high school and post-secondary levels, sparse coverage in the mass media on municipal councils and the substantial time involved in researching individual candidates, are also factors in why eligible voters don’t bother to go to the polls, said Kimberly Speers, senior instructor in the school of public administration at UVic.

“There’s just that general lack of trust in politicians,” Speers added. “People are just fed up and they give up.”

The use of social media has helped educate some voters, chiefly the under-represented 18-30 demographic, but Speers doesn’t expect to see any huge change Nov. 19. The Occupy movement could be another factor that affects interest, she noted, but there’s no guarantee it will translate at the polls.

The prospect of voter turnout dropping even further in 15 years as the most active voting group – people aged 60-65 – dwindles has political scientists scared, she said.

“We’re living in a very cynical age and the number of people who are turned off by politics has grown over the last 30 years,” Prince said. “I’m not optimistic that younger people who aren’t voting now will magically get turned on to politics or municipal elections in the next decade or so.”

Despite the challenges, Prince does expect a boost in voter turnout this Saturday – up to 15 per cent over 2008 – based on the mayoral race between incumbent Frank Leonard and challenger David Cubberley.

“This is probably the most elaborate campaign in the region … so that should pull out the vote,” he said.

Prince had predicted the oft-scrutinized Uptown development would have taken a role in Cubberley campaign. Instead the former MLA has focused much of his energy on items such as the need for more sidewalks throughout the municipality. The way the two candidates have been hugging the political centre and offering “nice sound bites” on issues like park trails, sustainability and affordable housing, Prince explained, might be the experienced politicians’ way of reading the public’s current disinterest in a hard, divisive style of politics.

“Maybe the difference between Frank Leonard and David Cubberley is that David Cubberley wants to do basically the same things as Frank Leonard but maybe a little faster, which means that maybe the tax rates would go up a little sooner rather than later,” he said.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

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