Why was voter turnout low in Revelstoke this year?

Was it 36 per cent, or 53 per cent? What factors affect the wide election-to-election swings at the polls?

The “Voter Turnout Award” was last awarded to the City of Revelstoke in 1996 by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. That year, Revelstoke continued its tradition of high voter turnouts and led the province with a turnout rate of 77 per cent, earning the certificate. A footnote on the certificate notes Revelstoke also won the award in 1960, 1962, 1969, 1978, and 1981.

Fast forward to 2011. 36 per cent. A dismal sign of a disengaged municipal electorate? A disaster?

Well, not really. In fact, Revelstoke may have had an unfair advantage in winning all those previous awards. And we may also have had an unfair handicap in the opposite direction in this past election. Indeed, even comparing one city to the next is like comparing apples to oranges. Here’s why.

In October of this year, city council opted to drop the city-maintained voters’ list and move to the provincial voters’ list. The old city list was one maintained by the city, and has a lower total number of registered voters for several reasons. The provincial list is the same one used for provincial elections. It’s maintained by Elections BC.

As of voting day, the old city list would have had 3,754 electors on it, while the provincial list had 5,416 registered voters. With 1,972 ballots cast this past election, we get a 36 per cent turnout under the new system, but a 53 per cent turnout if calculated under the old system.

Is 53 per cent bad? Compared to other municipalities in B.C. it’s not. 36 per cent is not good, but not bottom of the barrel.

Another factor may be amplifying this swing. While the number of electors on the old city voters’ list certainly low since it’s calculated based on lower-turnout municipal elections, the new provincial list is likely somewhat high. Once you’re on that list, you’re less likely to be removed from it due to death, moving, or other factors. For example, in a report to city council in October, city election officer Teresa LeRose noted she was busy removing people from the provincial list whom the city knew had passed away. They had already been removed from the city list. How many seasonal skiers and workers were here during the last provincial election, but have now moved on? We now have a considerable seasonal influx, and could be accruing more voters than we actually have.

Several other factors likely kept voters away this year. There was no race for mayor. You could debate whether the Mayor of Revelstoke’s job is actually the seventh councillor with some ceremonial duties thrown in, or the leader of the community. Either way, a race for mayor brings out voters. The more candidates for mayor, the more votes. There was also no referendum question — another issue that brings out voters. Another key factor was the lack of a key election issue, other than taxation and city spending issues.

A better measure than the percentage of registered voters who cast their ballots is the absolute number of ballots cast.

In 2011, it was 1,972.  In 2008, it was 2,658. In 2005 it was 1,843. In 2002 it was 3,185. Beyond that, the city doesn’t keep records of the number. I dug through the Revelstoke Times Review archives back until 1990 when B.C. moved to set three-year terms. Unfortunately, the information from the 1990s isn’t that complete. About 2,258 ballots were cast in 1990. At least 2,914 were cast in 1993. At least 3,066 cast ballots in 1996. We calculated the results of these elections by adding up votes for mayoral candidates. In 1999, there was no race for mayor, so the numbers dipped, but there is no way of calculating how many votes were cast. The Times Review reported a voter turnout of 64 per cent (under the old system).

What do the absolute number of ballots cast tell us? There are big swings between elections. In general, the past few elections have seen somewhat of a decline. 2011 was the second-lowest turnout since the new three-year fixed dates were implemented in 1990.

Comparing ourselves to other municipalities across B.C. isn’t that helpful. This year, 57 of the villages, towns, cities and districts used a provincial voters list. 67 used a poll book. The other 63 didn’t bother responding to a Union of British Columbia Municipalities survey on the issue. Therefore, comparing ourselves to others is essentially comparing apples to oranges. You’re likely to see skewed percentages in each community.

So, here’s what I took away from researching election results:

– It would be helpful of someone was keeping track of all these numbers better.

– While our turnout was the second lowest in the past two decades, it wasn’t as low as it appears. The 36 per cent number is deceptive because of the voter list change. Compared fairly to past elections, it was 53 per cent.

– Comparing percentages between municipalities doesn’t provide a good picture of how we’re doing.

– Revelstoke used to be a leader in voter turnout, but has slipped somewhat.

– Compared to other municipalities, it’s safe to say we’re doing relatively good.

– Voter turnout is down when there is no mayoral race and no referendum issue. The more mayor candidates running, the bigger the turnout.

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Last week, Keith Archer, Elections BC Chief Electoral Officer, submitted a report to the B.C. Legislature recommending exploring online voting and registering younger voters in high school, amongst other voter registration improvements. His ideas were topical in the news media last week. His suggestions for provincial reforms may pan out, but what about made-in-Revelstoke solutions for municipal elections? We used to lead the province in municipal voter turnout. How do we pass that legacy on to younger voters here?

Council has kicked the idea of a youth council around, but never moved it forward. What about connecting on housing? An RSS grad used to be able easily buy a house here with one good income and a supplemental income. Not anymore. Could this issue which can be addressed somewhat at the municipal level be a way of connecting with youth? Can we lead again in voter turnout by focusing on improving youth voter turnout?