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Voting by the numbers: Why do civic elections draw the fewest voters?

Academics shed some light on why voter turnout for municipal elections is historically so low
One could argue civic elections are more important than their federal and provincial counterparts, yet voter turnout is historically lower at the municipal level. With Surrey’s election just hours away, we find out why that might be. (File photo)

Got a bylaw complaint? Who are you going to call, Justin Trudeau? Nope.

If you want a variance permit to change something on your property — are you going to call John Horgan? Of course not.

When it comes to dealing with government, no level is more in your own backyard, sometimes literally, than are the folks from city hall. Your city hall is a lot closer to you than Ottawa, or Victoria, and can do a profound bit of good, or damage, to your going concern if you‘re not paying attention.

And yet, when it comes time to vote in a new council or school board, turnout at the polling stations is guarantee-ably lower than during provincial and federal elections.

This time around, hopefully, change is in the air and more Surrey residents will exercise their democratic duty to get out and vote at one of Surrey’s 57 polling stations. Between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, Surrey will be electing a mayor, eight councillors and six school trustees.

Advance voting days were held in Surrey on Oct. 6, 10, 11 and 13 and if the numbers from those polls are any indication, it looks like the city will see a higher voter turnout than usual on election day.

“I am informed that the unofficial total number of ballots cast during the four advance voting opportunities is 22,185 and that the total number of registered electors on the voters list immediately before the first advance voting opportunity on Oct. 6 was 317,462,” Anthony Capuccinello Iraci, Surrey’s chief election officer, told the Now-Leader this week.

Anthony Capuccinello Iraci, Surrey’s chief election officer. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

“I am also informed that in the 2014 election a total of 11,747 ballots were cast during the advance voting opportunities and that the total number of registered electors on the voters list at that time was 287,904.”

So while the number of registered voters increased by less than 10 per cent, the number of advance voters increased by almost 100 per cent.

In Surrey’s last election, on Nov. 15, 2014, 101,558 ballots were cast — making for a 35.3 per cent voter turnout.

Of all Surrey’s polling stations in 2014, the Sullivan Heights Secondary polling station recorded the most ballots cast — 3,314— while the polling station with the least number of ballots cast was at East Kensington Elementary, with 456.

All told, though, the turnout during Surrey’s civic election 2014 was an improvement on the the 25 per cent turnout in 2011 that saw 70,253 ballots cast, and the 24.1 per cent voter turnout in 2008.

But these turnouts pale in comparison to the voting turnouts in Surrey for the May 9, 2017 provincial election. One of the nine local provincial ridings, South Surrey-White Rock, embraces the city by the sea. But if for argument’s sake we remove from the mix the 2014 civic election turnout for White Rock, which saw 33 per cent of its 15,425 registered voters cast a total of 5,085 votes, Surrey’s turnout for the provincial election — 328,315 registered voters casting 194,547 votes in total — still, by far, exceeds the number of votes cast in Surrey’s last civic election.

Moreover, Surrey’s voter turnout in the Oct. 19, 2015 federal election was even higher than that, with 247,091 votes cast in this city.

The question is, why?

“Understand B.C. is kind of an outlier in this,” says Dr. Peter Smith, professor of political science and urban studies at Simon Fraser University. “Nova Scotia or Ontario would be different because of the ward system. In British Columbia all local governments operate under an at-large system, so one of the reasons the turnout is so low in big cities in particular is because the ballots are so convoluted in terms of the length and number, and information. I heard somebody coming out of the Vancouver advance poll with the comment of how things looked on the ballot, and she said she’d felt like she’d taken an exam.”

Dr. Peter Smith, professor of political science and urban studies at Simon Fraser University. (Submitted photo)

“Some people get a bit overwhelmed,” Smith noted. Is it a matter, then, of federal and provincial politics being easier to fathom than what’s going on at city hall?

“Not necessarily in terms of issues,” he says. “But with regard to the actual voting process itself.”

When voting for a Member of Parliament or Member of the Legislative Assembly, you find out who your constituency person is “and you can determine whether that’s the party you’d like to support, so you have more information with less effort,” Smith says.

For example, last federal election, Surrey voters elected five MPs out of 25 candidates.

On Oct. 20, though, Surrey voters will elect one mayor out of eight candidates, eight councillors out of 48 candidates, and six school trustees out of 30 candidates. Lots of choice there — too much, some might argue.

Smith’s colleague Dr. Sanjay Jeram, also a professor of political science at SFU, agrees that typically speaking “there’s a sort of hierarchy in turnout rates going from municipal to provincial to federal.

“Some of the experiments that have been run in political science, observational studies, point to sort of a lack of understanding among voters as to what city governments do and their impact on their bottom line,” he explains.

“So it’s one of the issues is that most people, when asked, can’t really identify the division of power, especially between cities and provinces because ultimately you get the Civics 100 version of it in high school, really you’re told in Canada that cities are creatures of the provinces, that effectively the provinces just simply fund cities and there is no room for cities to actually flex their muscle. But that isn’t really true, especially when it comes to mega-cities or powerful cities.”

Dr. Sanjay Jeram, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University. (Submitted photo)

Unlike other big cities in Canada, Jeram notes, there has been no amalgamation in Metro Vancouver.

“It’s an interesting laboratory.”

It seems a lot of people have less belief in the relevance of their civic election, he says, “because of how small these municipalities are and how confusing it is for a lot of people. They don’t necessarily fully comprehend the difference between Surrey or Port Coquitlam other than sort of an identity but not so much in terms of the kind of relevance their local government has in their lives, where they live and how it affects them.

“So there’s an interesting dynamic to having so many municipalities. It sort of creates a level of confusion, an even greater level of confusion here than elsewhere.”

But a civic government does possess considerable clout in its dealings with the residents it governs.

For example, property taxes, trash removal, and zoning issues “which especially in Metro Vancouver is growing in relevance since we have a housing crisis,” Jeram notes.

“One of my distinct things to look for is whether rates start to creep up in Metro Vancouver because of the fact that I think housing has become such a relevant issue.”

Jeram says people are starting to realize that cities and municipalities do have some control over zoning and regulating development projects, “so at least when it comes to the supply side of the equation, they can do something. When it comes to the demand side, they’re more reliant on the provincial government.”

For instance, cities can’t levy policies to prevent foreign money from coming in, but “they can influence supply, for sure.”

Considering the hierarchy of power related to federal, provincial and civic governance, Jeram notes, we also see hierarchical voting patterns in terms of power within the civic government itself.

“People will often cast their vote for mayor but don’t necessarily fill in their votes for school board and things like that.”


To be able to vote, you will need two pieces of ID that show where you live, and one must have your signature.

You must be 18 or older, a Canadian citizen, a resident of B.C. for at least six months, a resident of Surrey for at least 30 days, and not be disqualified from voting by law.

For more information check out, under “Surrey 2018 Municipal Election.”


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Tom Zytaruk

About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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