Advance polls in Vancouver’s civic election point to a substantial increase in turnout, just a few weeks after participation in the federal elections reached an all-time low.
When advance polls closed in the evening of November 12, a total of 15,188 early ballots were counted, up from 8,763 in 2005.
This amounts to a 73 per cent increase which some argue is driven by youth interest and excitement from the US presidential election.
Richard Hungerford, member of the youth-focused advocacy group Get Your Vote On, was encouraged by the results. He said young voters are feeling more confident about inciting government change following Barack Obama’s presidential victory.
“The American election has triggered a lot of excitement around the democratic process,” Hungerford said.
But University of British Columbia political science professor Fred Cutler doubted there was an “Obama effect” at play. He said participation in municipal politics is known to fluctuate more than in provincial and federal elections.
Related: Advanced polling figures at a glance
For example, when COPE swept the Vancouver municipal race in 2002 participation hit an even 50 per cent, while the 2005 election brought in a modest 32 per cent turnout just three years later.
“I think at this level of government turnout depends on how compelling the candidates are,” said Cutler. “I doubt there is much of an Obama effect.” Cutler noted advance polls were more accessible this year.
Voting made easier
Changes to the rules on advance voting may have also played a part. Whereas early voters had to provide a written excuse in 2005, anyone was able to cast a ballot at the advanced polls on Nov. 5, 8, 10 and 12 this year.
“Due to a legislative change, all eligible voters are now permitted to vote at an advance voting opportunity,” said the City of Vancouver in a statement. “Voters no longer have to sign a document giving their reason for voting in advance.”
The municipal government also increased the number of places to vote early. There were five designated polling stations: City Hall, Dunbar Community Centre, Trout Lake Community Centre, Sunset Community Centre and the West End Community Centre. During the last election, there were only four.
“In this case, voting early is just a little more convenient,” said Cutler, adding that he would be surprised if participation rose above 50 per cent on Saturday.
However, youth workers argue that these changes alone would not account for the jump in turnout. “One extra polling station is not going to be a major factor,” said deputy chief election officer Paul Hancock.
Although one less form to sign might encourage a few extra early birds, Hancock did not expect the change would cause Vancouverites to show up in droves. He added the change was not widely advertised.
Youth ‘getting their vote on’
Although youth are often dismissed as a typically apathetic demographic, early voter turnout might suggest young people have been paying attention during this election.
Trout Lake’s presiding election official Pamela Leaman said young voters and first-timers were in high volume at advance polls.
Advocacy group Get Your Vote On has been helping young people get registered to vote since the 2005 B.C. provincial elections.
Through online social networking, youth-focused events, backpack buttons, trendy-looking stickers and good old-fashioned canvassing, the group encourages Canadians aged 18 to 34 to get out to the polls at every level of government.
Leading up to this week’s municipal election, Get Your Vote On put together several youth-focused events, including a speed-dating style debate October 27, an all-candidates mixer November 7 and an awareness-raising bike rally on November 14.
Hungerford described the political speed date: “Each candidate sat at a table of about seven or eight participants, and were given an informal topic. Whether it was housing or violence or the environment, participants got to hammer out the issues face-to-face.” Candidates switched tables every ten minutes, allowing for a mix of conversation and debate.
The event, advertised as “not your parent’s debate,” blurred the lines between advocacy and amusement. “There’s nothing wrong with mixing entertainment and politics,” Hungerford said.
(Photo of Barack Obama courtesy of Jack Thielepape/jmtimages)