More residents, fewer voters, as valley records a staggering drop in election turnout

Voter turnout had actually been on the rise in recent local elections. Then 2022 hit.

By Tyler Olsen | November 26, 2022 |8:00 am

Langley Township’s municipal election had all the ingredients needed for a high voter turnout in October.

The mayor’s race had four recognizable names, including two sitting councillors and a prominent former provincial cabinet minister. There were two new slates campaigning for votes, raising money, and advertising heavily. There were significant differences about the appropriate path forward for a fast-changing community.

Yet barely one-quarter of eligible voters cast ballots.

That figure was down from 2018, despite the township having a much more competitive mayor’s race than four years ago. But the decline in voting wasn’t just a Langley story. In fact, the township’s 26% turnout figure was the [highest] of all the Fraser Valley’s larger communities.

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Low, even by historical standards

Hand-wringing about municipal election turnout is as common as the elections themselves.

Despite the sizable stakes and the fact many people personally know those on the ballots, turnout in local elections is always lower than in national and provincial elections. Turnout rarely breaks the 40% threshold in most local elections. In many places, less than one-third of eligible voters cast ballots.

Those reoccurring crummy figures might lead one to assume that this year’s poor show at the ballot box is just how things go in BC municipal politics.

But there are degrees of voter apathy. And until 2022 hit, turnout had actually been on the rise in local elections in the valley and across BC.

In 2008, just 27% of estimated eligible voters cast ballots in municipal races within the Fraser Valley. That sorry figure rose in 2011, again in 2014, and yet again in 2018. Just four years ago, an estimated 34% of residents in the valley’s cities voted. (For simplicity’s sake, this story omits turnout statistics for Fraser Valley

Regional District electoral areas, where many candidates are acclaimed. Inconsistent data prior to 2008 means our analysis stops with that election.)

Each local race is unique and impacts turnout in its own way, but there was a clear common story through the 2010s: in general, turnout was improving. Then came 2022.

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Last year, less than one-quarter of eligible voters cast ballots. The decline in voting was precipitous and uniform. The Fraser Valley’s municipalities added more than 40,000 eligible voters between 2018 and 2022. But a stunning 20,000 fewer ballots were cast than four years ago. Even if one accepts that newcomers to a community will be less likely to vote than longtime residents, the sheer decline in the number of votes cast shows that’s not the only thing at play.

Voting turnout is generally thought to be significantly influenced by the characteristics of individual races and the stakes involved. But in 2022, it didn’t matter if there was a more contentious election race than in 2018 or not: turnout declined in all eight Fraser Valley municipalities.

That was true whether a town has historically had good turnout or if potential voters are consistently unengaged.

Harrison Hot Springs, for instance, always has the region’s highest turnout. But despite a competitive three-way mayor’s race in which no single candidate garnered more than 50% of votes, turnout sagged below 50% for the first time in at least 15 years.

On the other end of the valley, in Langley City, only 17% of eligible voters cast a ballot in a mayor’s race that ousted the controversial incumbent. That was the lowest turnout in a Fraser Valley municipal election with a mayor’s race since at least 2005.

Turnout also plunged below the one-quarter mark in Abbotsford and Chilliwack. Neither city had a particularly competitive mayoral race. But while last year’s Chilliwack school board by-election was notable for its relatively high turnout, a similarly contentious trustee race this year did not make up for a general lack of interest in municipal politics in that city.

The problem goes beyond just the Fraser Valley, provincial figures show.

Local election turnout also collapsed across BC in 2022. In 2018, 35.6% of those eligible to cast a ballot voted. This year, only 29.2% did so. That decline is similar to, though not as steep, as the Fraser Valley numbers.

Why?

In any one community, officials might be able to point to a single specific factor as a cause for local turnout. Competitive mayoral races—or the lack thereof—is the most common reason that turnout fluctuates in a community.

But the provincial turnout drop suggests something more wide-ranging is at work.

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Election officials on the case

Bev Kennedy wants to find out just what is going on.

Kennedy was the chief election officer for the District of Kent, the sprawling municipality that includes Agassiz townsite. Among all Fraser Valley municipalities, Kent had the lowest turnout, with only around 12% of eligible residents voting.

In those residents’ defence, there weren’t many decisions to make. Kent was the only municipality in the region where there was no mayor’s race, with incumbent Sylvia Pranger acclaimed. And the council race was also the least competitive in the valley, with just five candidates for four spots. (All four incumbents were re-elected; the one non-incumbent to run, Vernoa Dandenault, still did relatively well, with nearly half of voters casting a ballot in her favour. Low turnout often, though not always, favours incumbents.)

Excuses or not, Kennedy wants to figure out what is happening and how to get more residents voting.

She is working on setting up a meeting between all the region’s chief election officers at which they can share insights and ideas. Kennedy has already spoken to many of her colleagues in neighbouring communities, and most commented on the decline in turnout.

“They all were wondering what was going on, and then they found out that around our area and all across BC, the same thing was happening,” she said. Kennedy, though, heard little consensus about the cause of the sudden increase in voter apathy.

“If you get eight or nine of us together, you’ll get eight or nine different opinions,” she said.

The various officers had tried different things to encourage turnout. Kennedy and her Kent colleagues, for their part, focused on increasing the use of social media and video in the lead up to the election. It didn’t work.

The hope is that as a group, they might come up with some new strategies. Kennedy said there is a strong desire for improvement. She said everyone she spoke to was eager to meet and share their various perspectives and brainstorm solutions.

“We’re all interested in finding out what’s going on and what is the solution,” she said. “Seven or eight heads are much better than one.”

Trying to solve a mystery

To try to figure out for ourselves what may be keeping people away from the polls, the Current consulted historic data and talked to UFV political science professor Hamish Telford and Civic Info BC executive director Todd Pugh. (Civic Info is a non-profit government information service that collects and hosts information on elections and other municipal topics.)

In the second part of this story, we look at six  possible reasons for the decline in voting, including the media coverage of local politics, statistical variation, and simple human nature. Oh, and the pandemic as well. Read that here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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