Stephanie Ryan, president of Surrey Civic Coalition, has put forward an intriguing suggestion to boost voter turnout.
Ryan is suggesting that Surrey council consider holding more referenda, to have people take a more active part in the decision-making process and to boost turnout.
Based on historical precedent, she is correct in stating that holding referenda does boost voter turnout in Surrey. She cites the referenda on the Green Timbers and Sunnyside Acres park designations in 1988, which did boost voter interest substantially. But there’s another example from a few years earlier that bolsters her case even further.
Back in 1980, the provincial government decided that it would no longer stand in the way of shopping on Sundays and holidays, and brought in the Holiday Shopping Regulation Act. Prior to that time, only a very few types of businesses were allowed to be open on Sundays – gas stations, restaurants, drug stores and corner stores were the most common.
There were no liquor establishments open on Sundays, nor were any large retailers or shopping malls open that day. London Drugs was likely the largest retailer regularly open on Sundays, and that was because it contained a pharmacy. At that time, grocery stores did not usually contain pharmacies.
The changes to the law were both innovative and curious. Victoria decided that municipalities could determine on their own if they wished to allow retailers to open shop on Sundays and holidays, but only if there was approval from the public through a referendum.
Thus Surrey council scheduled a vote for November 1980, as part of what was then an annual process of electing some members of council and school board. It was what was called an “off” election year – the mayor was not up for election. Four members of council and some school trustees were to be elected.
Usually, the turnout was lower in “off” years, as there was not the heightened interest in the election. But the opposite was true in 1980.
The result was likely the highest voter turnout in Surrey in the past 50 years – a turnout of well over 40 per cent. And to few people’s surprise, Surrey voters backed Sunday and holiday shopping. Within weeks, retailers were preparing to open for business on days where they had once been forced to close.
As we all know, that trend has only magnified since that time, with retailers now open virtually every day of the year except Christmas and New Year’s Day, and some are open 24 hours a day at certain times of the year.
It was a relatively simple decision – it didn’t require a lot of research. There were pro and con campaigns, as is usually the case in referenda votes. And people welcomed the chance to have a say in a matter which directly affected them — both in terms of shopping availability and employment.
There is no reason that more direct democracy, particularly on issues that directly affect many people, can’t be used to help boost voter interest and participation in local elections.