One of the discussions during this election (and in all local elections for the last few decades) was voter turnout. Already low across the region, there was some concern that this election would see even lower than usual turnout. We don’t have official numbers yet, but I thought it would be good to compare this year to previous years.
There was some reason to suspect lower turnout this year. As charming and important as School Trustees and City Councillors are, it is really difficult for normal people and occasional voters to connect with that level of government. Occasionally, we have a candidate who is really compelling (I think of Jonina Campbell in 2011, Kelly Slade-Kerr in 2014) who drive some increased interest, but I doubt even that draws more than a couple of percent of eligible voters. Much like federal election interest is driven by the candidates for Prime Minister (sorry, Peter), the reality is that local elections often carry the weight of the Mayor’s race. And the reality is we didn’t have much of a Mayor’s race this year. Nothing against the challengers, but they all started very late and had limited campaigns (only one had lawn signs, one other had a website, and attendance at all-candidate events was spotty). I think in most people’s minds, even those who opposed him, Cote as a safe bet to win.
However, there was also a reason to suspect turnout may be higher, and that was a well-coordinated and -funded party running in opposition to the existing Mayor and Council. There is good potential for a party with strong political connections and good messaging to drive turnout, both by their own efforts, and by forcing the incumbents to get off their duffs and work to keep their jobs. I knocked on almost as many doors this year as I did in my rookie year, and direct voter engagement – actually looking at people and telling them to vote – is the proven Get Out The Vote strategy.
So how did that all work out?
A note here, I am using the unofficial voter stats released by the City for 2018, and the City’s open data number for previous elections (we don’t yet have official numbers for 2018). I am also using population stats from the BC Government website. These numbers are not “voter turnout” in any official way. New Westminster’s population is about 74,000 people. We had just under 50,000 registered voters going into the election, though some of those people may have died, moved out of the city, or otherwise not been eligible to vote this election. There were probably a fair number of people who were eligible to vote but were not registered to do so, and registered on the day of the election. Short story: numbers are complicated, and everything below is an estimate.
This graph shows the number of votes for Mayor, Council, and School Board for every election since 1990 (the first year these stats are provided by the City), alongside the population trend for the same period:
As the numbers are hard to compare on a single y-axis, I indexed all of them by dividing all of the numbers by their 1990 value to allow a closer comparison. Numbers below 1.0 are lower than the 1990 value, numbers above 1.0 are above the 1990 value:
Finally, to see how the vote numbers compare to population change, I divided the Mayor’s vote count by population, and the Council and School board votes by population *and* by dividing them by the total number of available votes (6 for school council, 7 for school board). See the above caveat about this not being “voter turnout”, but it does provide a clear indication of how voter number change when population change is removed:
In short, voter turnout dropped in the late 1990s, turned around in the early 2000’s, and took until 2014 for it to catch up to the losses of the previous decade. 2018 turnout is slightly down in 2018 for Mayor and Council, and slightly up for School Board when compared to 2014.
This does show the importance of the Mayors Race. In 1999, the Mayor was acclaimed, and the School Board and council vote turnout suffered. The 2002 Election was an exciting affair with Wayne Wright unseating the incumbent by 18 votes, resulting in a jump in voter turnout across the board. The next three elections were relatively lackluster as a popular mayor won fairly easily, and the Council and School Board vote more or less flat-lined. (the 2008 School Board jump possibly related to the Grimston Park school controversy? Or am I getting my dates mixed up?). 2014 was again an exciting mayoral race with a strong-campaigning challenger unseating a popular incumbent. And much as I would think I am responsible for the huge jump in Council votes that year, the turnout across the board (if not my lackluster 5th place finish) belies this hope.
One thing that does stand out is uptick in School Board votes this year while Mayoral and Council votes were slightly down (on a per-capita basis). I would love to hear a theory to explain this. Good candidates? The fact they are finally pouring concrete for a new High School? Or perhaps it was because no group ran a full slate, so there was seen to be more room for challengers to get onto the board? Enter your theory here.
Poll-by-poll results are yet to be released, and that is where the real fun is! I will write another piece once I get a chance to chew on them.