Rows of voting booths, but with only three or four of the booths have a person in them.

Photo Credit: Darryl Dyck | Canadian Press

Is Local Democracy on Life Support?

Voter turnout in the last election suggests it is

Cumberland set the high bar with 41% voter turnout, while Tofino hit a new low at 17%

Province-wide, voter turnout in the recent municipal elections was less than 30 percent. That number lags well behind turnout in federal and provincial elections.

On VanIsle, turnout was particularly poor in most communities. Just 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the Courtenay election, while 28 percent showed up at the polling stations in Comox.  

Port Hardy also came in at 28 percent. That means less than 1,000 people voted for the new mayor. Tofino set the low benchmark for voter apathy with just 17 percent participation.

Port Alberni was a little above average at 33 percent. Campbell River saw an 11 percent jump from 2018 with 36 percent of voters partaking. Was it because of their complicated mayoral candidate?

Cumberland led the charge at 41 percent. But participation in the village was still down 6 percent from four years ago.

So Cumberland, with its new mayor, represents the highwater mark for voter participation at 41 percent. That’s a sad statement about public engagement in local politics in our area.

The lack of competition for the mayor’s job in cities and towns across BC certainly doesn’t get citizens hyped about the election. Nicole Minions in Comox and Dan Law in Tofino joined 35 other mayor candidates across BC who ran unopposed.

Others also blame the at-large system, where councillors don’t represent a specific area. Folks say that means a confusing number of candidates can appear on the ballot.

Both could be part of the problem, but some people have just checked out of democracy.

Voter apathy in municipal elections is not only bad for democracy, it’s also a puzzling contradiction.

Of all elected officials (federal, provincial, and municipal) our municipal politicians are the most accessible by far. As a citizen you can sit in on council meetings, even talk to our councillors in the street or grocery store when you see them.

Unlike provincial and federal elected officials, civic politicians aren’t handcuffed by party politics and discipline. Therefore, debate around the city council table has the potential to be much freer and more lively.

Lastly, municipal politicians make decisions that directly affect our lives. They decide where to build a city parks and event spaces, a shelter for the homeless, bike lanes, affordable housing complexes, and countless other details that make a community.

On paper, you’d think people would be stoked about municipal elections. But we’re not.

Vancouver’s Innovative Research Group recently polled hundreds of Canadians on a range of questions about democracy. The results published in the Democracy and Civil Discourse Report were telling, if not contradictory at times.

For example, 68 percent said they were satisfied with how democracy in Canada is working. But 57% polled said they don’t think politicians listen to people like them.

More than 60 percent believe federal and provincial governments regularly lie, but close to 50 percent believe municipal government are mostly truthful.

There seems to be a serious trust issue between citizens and politicians. The study suggests folks trust their local politicians the most. So wouldn’t that mean more people should be voting in local elections?

Apparently that’s not the case.

In places like Tofino, just 1 out of 6 voters took the time to cast a ballot and choose a council that will guide their community for the next 4 years.

That spells apathy and democracy on life support.