ELECTION 2014: Getting to the bottom of Kelowna’s voter apathy

City of Kelowna offers a bounty of opportunities to vote in a number of ways.

Did you vote in the last civic election? How about the one before that?

If you said yes, then you’re among the minority of Canadians.

Voter participation in municipal elections across the country can, at times, be startlingly low.

In Kelowna, for example, the 2008 election attracted a mere 19 per cent of total voters. The following year, for the 2009 by-election, 11 per cent of voters headed to the ballot box.

It was considered a resounding success when 33 per cent of voters turned out for the 2011 election.

But what of the remaining 67 per cent?

Increasingly poor voter turnout is a problem that’s confounded political pundits, academics and civil servants alike for the better part of 20 years, said Hamish Telford, a political science professor and the author of Rules of the Game: An Introduction to Canadian Politics, which examines that issue, among others.

“There’s very much a hierarchy depending on each level of government,” said Telford, noting that percentages of voters is very similar all across the country.

Turnout is best in federal elections, hovering at around  60 per cent. Provincial election turnout sits at the 50 per cent mark and, if a city is lucky, municipal elections garner around 30 per cent of the population.

“People have a sense that the biggest level of government is the most important,” he said.

The federal government, however, provides very little in the way of direct services.

They approve your passports, but it’s the municipal level government who tends to your parks, takes away your garbage and even manages your schools.

“People think big government does big stuff and little government does little stuff, but that’s misleading,” he said.

But where does that disconnect come from?

In part, said Telford, it’s media penetration.

Not everyone is a news junkie. But, just about everyone tunes into some form of media, whether it be the TV, their computers or even just their social media feeds.

And during the course of sifting through any one of those platforms, there’s a high likelihood that an issue of national importance will come to the fore.

It could be shared blog posts, or just as simple as Peter Mansbridge teasing the upcoming CBC news with a quick summary of what’s to come.

Municipal coverage, however in depth or voluminous as it may be, doesn’t have the same penetration—even when it lands on your doorstep.

Efforts to put local politics online or on social media channels seems to be similarly falling on deaf ears.

“A lot of people aren’t interested—people are tending to choose things that are more entertaining,” said Telford.

“Everyone is on social media, but they’re following Justin Bieber.”

It’s a phenomenon Telford has become all too familiar with in his professorial role.

“Curiously, you would think students involved in political science would be interested, but the Introduction to Canadian Politics course I teach is required for other programs. So many of my students are not interested in politics, not engaged and not participating,” he said.

“It’s been very difficult. I think that over the duration of a course I can make the case for voting, but whether I change behaviour or not, I don’t know.”

All is not lost, however. Perhaps the best way to get people engaged is to give them a sense of ownership in their community.

“Studies have shown people are more likely to vote when they have a vested interest,” said Telford, pointing out that property tax is something that piques the interest of every home owner.

“(Municipal governments) are taking your money and spending it, you want to know what they’re doing with it and you want them to be accountable.”

While the City of Kelowna can’t do much to drum up passion for local politics, they’ve found some other ways to increase voter participation.

After the dismal turnout for the 2008 election and the 2009 by-election, they took a proactive approach to reducing barriers that may have faced eligible voters.

“From our perspective, we are just trying to ensure that anyone who wants to vote is able to vote,” said Karen Needham, chief election officer with the City of Kelowna.

“So we looked at how we could find more convenient or accessible ways for people who have busy lives, to vote.”

The city opened up further opportunities for people to vote in the days leading to the election, so those who are working had more opportunities to take part.

They also created more venues for voting.

Recreation c entres and Orchard Park Mall, among other spots, were the temporary homes of voter booths. The latter option was most successful, Needham noted.

“We’ve also been trying to find ways to inform the public,” she said. “We were astounded by the number of people who didn’t know where they could vote or that there was even an election.”

To raise awareness, city staff created a voter card, similar to what’s sent out in provincial and federal elections.

It was more of an informational package than an official pass, but as Kelowna residents filed in to vote, many came packing their cards.

And, like anyone trying to put out their message, the city has used social media, although measuring the success of that route is difficult.

This year they even developed an election app, which you can download at kelowna.ca/election.

It offers voting locations, a list of candidates and on election night it will list the winners.

“We just don’t want there to be barriers to people voting,” she said.

“Of course it would be great to see a larger population to come out, but we know some people are happy with the way things are, and they don’t want to. We just want to make sure they can.”

Professor Telford would like to make sure they do.

He may be fighting an uphill battle, but he’ll continue to try and engage young people to get involved and vote.

“Just vote,” he said. “If you pick up the habit then you will start to pay attention.

“I’d encourage people to vote even if they’re not confident they know the issues. It’s a learning process.”

For more information on how to vote locally, go to kelowna.ca/election.

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