Early voting up 26% in Vancouver, but fears of voter apathy linger

Decision 2018: Will big issues defeat voter apathy?
WATCH: Decision 2018: Will big issues defeat voter apathy?

The numbers are in, and more Vancouver voters turned out this year to cast an early ballot than ever before.

According to the City of Vancouver, more than 48,000 people cast a ballot over seven days of early voting, up from just over 34,000 in 2014.

Early voters had the same number of days to cast a ballot this year as they did in the last election cycle but were provided with four additional polling places this time around.

But will the record number of early votes translate into a bump in turnout come election day?

Municipal elections are notorious for poor voter turnout. In Vancouver, only 44 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2014. In Burnaby, that figure was just 26 per cent.

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Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, says there’s no guarantee the early voting bump will translate into an overall increase in turnout.

Telford said parties and candidates have become experts at getting voters to the polls early to lock in their support, and many of those people turning up for advance voting may well be voters who turn out every election.

“It’s the same pool of voters taking advantage of the opportunity to vote earlier. There’s more opportunities to that, and it’s become an election tactic by parties and candidates to take advantage of that opportunity,” he said.

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Political strategist Mike McDonald says it’s an uphill battle every election cycle to get people to tune into their municipal campaign.

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“Federal and provincial elections tend to be a little more exciting. You’ve got leaders driving a lot of media coverage; there’s lots on the nightly news. There’s lots of TV advertisement and social media advertising, millions of dollars being spent to generate that kind of interest,” he said.

“Civic elections are a little more low-key, and some people think they’re maybe a little more boring.”

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But McDonald said he remains hopeful this year’s municipal elections could see a bump in voter engagement.

He pointed to the most recent provincial and federal elections, both of which saw an uptick.

In the 2017 B.C. election, turnout climbed to 60 per cent from 57 per cent, while turnout in the 2015 federal election climbed from 61.4 per cent to 68.5 per cent.

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From Telford’s perspective, the results will likely vary across the province.

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He said the final result may boil down to whether an individual race had a charismatic candidate, a key issue that animated voters or a close head-to-head campaign.

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Telford pointed to Burnaby, where incumbent Derek Corrigan appears to be locked in a dead heat with independent challenger Mike Hurley as one area that could see a bump. Telford also believes Surrey — where there has been heated debate over the fate of the local RCMP as well as light rail transit — could experience an uptick in voter turnout.

“Those are the things that really drive turnout, and that’s going to vary from municipality to municipality,” he said.

However, there are also factors that risk depressing turnout this year.

In Vancouver, voters are faced with an overwhelming number of candidates for mayor and city council. Several municipalities have faced allegations of election irregularities, and new election finance rules have decreased the amount candidates can spend on getting their name out.

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But McDonald says those factors shouldn’t keep people at home, pointing to recent history as proof that a single vote can often mean much more than people tend to believe.

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“We can look at (the) U.S.: presidents get elected by a handful of votes in Florida. We can look at the last provincial election, where a handful of votes in Comox decided the election,” McDonald said.

“You never know if you’re going to be that vote. And you won’t have any influence if you don’t vote, that’s for sure.”

—With files form Sonia Sunger