Columnist Donna Macdonald says controversy is one way to improve voter turnout. File photo

Columnist Donna Macdonald says controversy is one way to improve voter turnout. File photo

New year, new starts…and some engaging resolutions

COLUMN: We need to start early to increase voter turnout

I’m pretty sure you all noticed that January 1 marked the beginning of a new year. I hope you welcomed it warmly. But I’m also sure you didn’t notice that January 1 marked the beginning of something else: the local government election period. And just as you may have made resolutions for the New Year, I’d like to suggest one or two for the election period.

Many people, like me, are fascinated (and often dismayed) by politics, or at the very least are committed to democratic processes (the main one being voting). We all groan with disappointment the day after an election when voter turnout is calculated, and we recognize how many people don’t share our belief in the importance of voting.

This is true at all levels of government, but to me it’s most surprising at the local level. As I frequently say, local government (whether town council or regional district) is the most important level of governance. Just try to manage without snow clearing, emergency services and clean water! And yet voter turnout can be depressingly low.

According to CivicInfoBC, about 3300 candidates run for 1650 positions across B.C. in a typical election. So it’s a pretty big deal. Yet, in the 2014 elections, only a third of voters in municipalities (cities, towns, etc.) voted. It was even worse in the rural areas of regional districts: only 23 per cent of eligible voters made their mark.

Kamloops sat at the average of 33 per cent, while Nelson was 53 per cent, Salmo 56 per cent, Trail 50 per cent and Greenwood topped us all at 70 per cent. Vancouver was at 44 per cent. Further north, the numbers start to drop. In Fort St. John only 15 per cent of voters showed up, and only 20 per cent in Chetwynd. Perhaps a blizzard struck on election day!

It’s worth noting that these are all approximate numbers because the responsibility for maintaining an accurate voters list falls to municipalities. The process can be rather informal. For example, lists often include people long gone, either deceased or moved away. I recall as a councillor being asked to review Nelson’s list, to see if I could identify some of those extras.

Many academics have studied the reasons for voter disinterest. Bad weather events; that should improve by holding local elections in October not November. Complacency; the incumbents may be doing just fine but whose voices are missing? My vote doesn’t matter; in your community, especially in smaller ones, it sure does. No-one represents my issues; those elected will still make decisions on your issues. Campaigns are boring; there’s nothing like a good controversy to perk up people’s interest. I recall one Nelson election with an 80 per cent turnout – but it was divisive and nasty.

Much effort is expended to increase interest in elections and reach out to voters. So, your first suggested resolution is: I resolve to pay attention to the election and inform myself and my friends, and I will certainly vote on October 20. Of course, you could also resolve to run in the election and begin to prepare yourself for that!

I recently read about an American study that produced a surprising insight on voting. The study looked at children who’d participated for 10 years in a program called Fast Track, designed to develop social skills that would help kids make good life choices, stay out of jail and have healthy relationships. In the course of tracking the children past their school years, a surprising trend was noted. The children who’d been taught to develop certain social skills tended to vote more often compared with their peers who hadn’t.

What was it about Fast Track that resulted in a better voting record? The lead researcher, John Holbein from Brigham Young University, has a few theories. Fast Track helped children learn to empathize, to see that other people experience hardships, difficulties and obstacles in their lives, Holbein says, and to then ask: okay, what am I going to do about that? Voting for a compassionate government is one action.

Secondly, Fast Track taught kids how to better control their actions. Because voting does take effort and is subject to distractions and obstacles (like blizzards!), Holbein suggests that children who learned self-control abilities are more likely to persevere and achieve their goal of voting.

So, there’s your second suggested resolution: I resolve to help my children (and myself) develop empathy and self-control skills. That would make all of us better citizens and voters.

Wishing you all the best for an engaged 2018!

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014.