Why did voting turnout collapse in 2022? 6 theories

Is the decline in voting the result of less journalism, natural variations, boring mayoral races, or COVID? Or all of them?

By Tyler Olsen | November 29, 2022 |5:00 am

This fall’s election had historically low turnout, with some 20,000 fewer ballots cast across the Fraser Valley. (You can read our full breakdown on the collapse of voting here.)

The lack of voter enthusiasm wasn’t confined to the valley, though. Across BC, turnout plunged to levels not seen in more than a decade.

The reason for the drop, though, is unclear. There is no one obvious culprit for the democracy malaise affecting local races. That, in part, is what makes the issue interesting and worthy of further exploration.

Today, we’re looking at a handful of potential reasons for October’s turnout collapse, drawing on historic data, along with insight from 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.)

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One cause or many?

There are no shortage of possible explanations for the declining turnout. But there are reasons to doubt many of them.

Readers have offered useful and helpful personal observations about their ability to vote. One person noted that they couldn’t vote because they were out of the country and unable to make alternate voting arrangements. An election poll worker observed a significant dearth of younger voters. And another spoke to clients who missed voting because they were busy and didn’t realize when, exactly, election day was.

Those observations are useful, but when considering the effect of a factor on turnout over time, one has to contemplate how that factor has itself changed over the last four years. The availability of advance polling stations, for instance, is unlikely to be the cause of the decline if those stations are as plentiful as they were four years ago. It’s also possible, and probably likely, that the sudden plunge in voting is due to a combination of reasons, rather than one specific cause.

Theory 1: A collection of less-interesting races

Turnout in any single municipal election is often linked to how invested locals are in the mayoral race. So one explanation for lower turnout across all of BC could be that the province had a larger-than-average number of uncompetitive mayoral races this year—particularly in bigger communities. And this year, Burnaby—BC’s third-largest city by population—had no mayor’s race. The result? Voters cast 17,000 fewer ballots than four years prior.

In the grand scheme of things, though, low turnout in even a city as large as Burnaby can’t account for the entire provincewide drop in turnout. The lack of a race in Burnaby was counteracted by particularly competitive race in the province’s two largest municipalities—Vancouver and Surrey. Those two elections each saw incumbent mayors were ousted. But while, those races should have seen comparatively high turnout, turnout declined slightly in Vancouver; in Surrey, where the vote came down to less than 1,000 votes, turnout increased only modestly, from 32.9% to 34.5%.

(You can find results for every race in the province here.)

Theory 2: Historic variation

Good data on provincewide election turnout is relatively scarce, with Civic Info BC only having data going back to 2008. But 2008 is a good data point: that was the last time turnout was lower (28.5%) than this year’s voting rate (29.5%).

Pugh noted that variation in local election turnout is relatively high and fluctuations are relatively common. This year’s low numbers could be at least partly the result of happenstance. This theory, though, has a catch that is similar to our first: the scale of the turnout plunge.

Over the three previous election cycles, provincial turnout increased an average of about two percentage points each year. The largest change was in 2014, when turnout jumped by four percentage points. This year, however, turnout plunged by six percentage points. The change jumps out even more when analyzing the sheer number of ballots cast. In the Fraser Valley, for instance, the number of people who voted declined by around 20%. (Comparing percentages like turnout rates rather than pure numbers like ballots cast can obscure just how dramatic the decrease in voting was this year.)

If natural variation or an evolution of voting habits is at work, turnout should still be expected to change relatively gradually on a provincial scale, with factors in various communities balancing each other out.

Theory 3: Media coverage

With dramatically fewer local reporters employed today than 15 years ago, elections now receive less coverage. In the Fraser Valley, for instance, the number of on-the-ground reporters at local outlets was nearly cut in half between 2008 and 2018. Less coverage of, and information about, campaigns might mean people feel less invested or able to make an informed decision.  The issue with this theory is that turnout actually increased between 2008 and 2018, even though the number of reporters in local communities plunged dramatically.

Since 2018, meanwhile, the number of reporters in the area has largely stabilized while turnout has declined.

Theory 4: Migration

The housing market and demographic changes have shifted migration trends considerably since 2018. Data collected by The Current shows huge migratory shifts of people within BC and the Fraser Valley as residents have sought cheaper housing or new jobs.

As people move to new municipalities, they are likely less invested in local politics and less likely to cast a vote. The same goes for those who are preparing to leave their communities.

An increase in migration within BC could be one reason why people feel less engaged at a municipal level. But we have poor underlying data to tell us if intra-provincial migration has actually increased.

We know that BC has been welcoming large numbers of people from out of the province, but data on migration between communities is much less consistent. So we don’t know if there has been an increased turnover of residents to cause such an effect.

Theory 5: The pandemic

By the numbers, something clearly seems to have happened on at least a provincial level between 2018 and today.

If you want to explain why local voting habits have changed, you need to explain why the behaviour of voters across hundreds of very different municipalities changed in sync with each other. That’s easy in a provincial election, when every local race is affected by the behaviour of provincial politicians. It’s trickier, though, when examining local election turnout.

But if you’re looking for something that changed how people live between 2018 and now, the most obvious culprit is the pandemic. COVID is also at the top of UFV political science professor Hamish Telford’s list.

“I’m guessing people just feel they have enough to deal with and are trying to get by,” he said. “Individuals only have so much bandwidth.”

COVID has changed how people live and think about their lives in myriad ways. It goes to think that the attention they pay to local issues and vote could be another symptom.

But recent provincial and federal elections provide mixed evidence for the theory.

The 2020 BC election, conducted in the fall just before the third wave, saw the lowest turnout since 2009. The turnout rate dropped from 61.2% to 54.5%, a figure similar to the 2009 election. That lines up closely with the recent BC municipal election figures.

But the 2021 federal election didn’t seem affected by COVID. Turnout in that election was 75%, just a single percentage point lower than a pre-pandemic election (with almost an identical outcome) in 2019. That suggests that pandemic brain crunch might not be fully responsible for the municipal drop in turnout.

Theory 6: What is normal? / Is this normal?

There’s another big question, Telford notes. Maybe we care a little too much about voter engagement?

After most elections, there is concern that voter turnout has declined considerably from the middle of the last century.

“The broader question is: why is turnout lower than it used to be?” Telford said. “That’s a question that has really perplexed political scientists for some time.”

The idea is that there’s something wrong now that we need to fix. But there is another theory of the case, Telford said. It posits the idea that turnout today may not be abnormally low, but that the period to which it is compared—50 years or so—was one with abnormally high turnout.

“Interests in politics shift generationally,” Telford said. “Some generations are more interested in politics than other generations.

“We might be beating ourselves up over something that doesn’t have a solution because you can’t make people interested in something if they’re not interested.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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