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Trying to fix voter turnout 

Why is it so hard to get people to care about municipal elections?

click to enlarge AZIZA ASAT
  • Aziza Asat

Municipal politics determine roads, police, garbage collection, the legality of urban chickens and myriad other services that make up daily life—so why is it so hard to get people to care about municipal elections?

Past elections have shown it’s very hard indeed. In Halifax’s 2012 election, voter turnout was just shy of 37 percent, meaning almost two-thirds of eligible voters apparently had better things to do that day—compared to 55 percent in the 2013 provincial vote.

It could be that the everydayness of municipal services fails to prompt an impassioned response at polling time. As Jeffery Roy, professor in Dalhousie’s school of public administration, points out, turnout in municipal elections goes up when there’s something bigger at stake—as was the case in 2004, when the municipal election coincided with a provincial referendum on Sunday shopping.

But it’s just as likely that it’s the elections themselves that fail to capture people’s attention. Four districts are acclaimed in this week’s election—with no one to run against them, the sitting councillors win by default.

Unsurprisingly, having politicians win by default isn’t so good for a vibrant democracy, says Roy. “No matter how great of a job they’re doing, that’s certainly not an indicator of a vibrant competitive system and can’t boost turnout.”

Even with multiple candidates, a race in which there appears to be a clear winner can also depress turnout, especially with high-profile races, such as the one for the mayor.

But this applies to all council seats, especially where there’s an incumbent, since the winner only has to win a plurality—meaning the most votes of any candidate—rather than the majority. “In the current system that we have here,” says Roy, “incumbents start with a pretty significant advantage by virtue of their visibility in their district.”

Roy suggests one way to boost voter turnout is to focus not on the people lining up at the polling station, but those who have their names on the ballot:

“The more competitive races you have, the more likely you are to see an increase in voter turnout,” he says. “One of the key important factors [in increasing turnout] is trying to ensure more candidates as opposed to focusing on voters.”

All of this matters at least in part because with small districts and even smaller numbers of people voting in those districts, minimal increases in turnout can make a big difference in the results. 

Take North Dartmouth. In the January by-election for District 6—the electoral district that includes Dartmouth North—only 161 of 6,002 eligible voters in Dartmouth North cast a ballot. Tony Mancini won the seat by a margin of just 276 votes. This time around, the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre has organized a campaign aimed at addressing some of the barriers that have prevented people from voting.

Tammy Shields, community action coordinator with the Centre, says the eight-week campaign, which has covered everything from voter ID requirements to candidates’ platforms, seems to be working. “People feel that they’re facing so many day-to-day struggles putting food on the table, keeping the lights on, that for them getting out and voting is really low on their priority list,” she says. “So with us talking to people and providing resources—hopefully that, in time, will kind of take away some of those barriers for people.”

But the biggest challenge might be convincing Dartmouth North residents, many of whom live in poverty, that voting in any election—about the minutiae of municipal affairs or not—will make a difference in their lives.

Fixing that will take more than a few extra names on the ballot.

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