Voter turnout in Canada has seen a downward trend for decades. The last Federal election saw just 61.1% of eligible voters make it to the polls. That was up slightly from the record-breaking low of 2008, but still dismal.
Provincial numbers are worse, with just 52% of voters showing up for the 2013 BC election. But where the numbers really take a dive is when it comes to municipal elections. In 2011, the average turnout in BC was 29.5% with Nelson scoring slightly better at 33.3% of voters filling out a ballot. Yikes!
Why So Low?
So why is voter turnout so low? And should we care? Are we better off accepting that over 66% or more of all eligible Nelson voters might stay home again? Obviously the answer is “No, that’s crazy talk.”
There are lots of reasons why people don’t show up at the polls. Some don’t know how to register, or if they’re even allowed to vote in their region. Some don’t like any of the candidates. Some simply can’t make it to the polls due to age, infirmity, or lack of time. Some may feel that they haven’t had time to do enough research on the candidates to warrant a vote. And some may have given up hope that voting changes anything and have basically disengaged from this area of civic life.
Fortunately, there are lots of people out there who not only care enough to vote themselves, they also participate in campaigns to help get out the vote. I think this is amazing, but as important as their efforts are, there is reason to believe that poor voter turnout is a symptom of something bigger.
In his book Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam cites studies that have found that low voter turnout is connected to a reduced sense of community and civic engagement. This can be caused by things like an increase in the time spent working, more time spent in cars, consuming too much media, and relying on government to fulfil some of the needs that communities once had to band together to address.
As a result of this collapse in social capital, Putnam argues that, between 1960 and 2000, Western society saw greater social isolation, higher crime rates, less trust amongst neighbours, fewer volunteers supporting community organizations, cynicism towards our political processes, and of course lower voter turnout. In other words, most of the things we all seem to agree suck about life in the modern world.
So while I think we need all hands on deck to help get the vote out on November 15th, if we really want to get to the root of the problem, we need to look beyond this election cycle and make a greater effort to get more people involved in our community.
I believe our next council has to look for new opportunities to engage the public in the ongoing effort to preserve the things about Nelson we love, and work together to co-create the kind of community we want it to become in the future. Here’s what we can do to make this happen:
1. More informal meetings, presentations, and forums
Our current “Committee of the Whole” style of meeting is not conducive to the open exchange of ideas. We need dynamic conversations, not intimidating formal meetings.
ACTION: I’d like to see more informal presentations and forums similar to the EcoSociety’s Conversation Cafe. And personally, I’d like to hold regular round tables with 5-6 people at least once a month to address issues and concerns.
2. Get social with our social media
The City of Nelson finally got on Facebook, and this is great, but right now we are using it solely as a means of broadcasting messages. This is a bit of a social media fail. (Especially since we’re trying to position ourselves as a high-tech community with our new broadband service.)
ACTION: We need to use social media to directly engage with the public to garner ideas, opinions, and involvement. Facebook is a great start, but we also need to be on Twitter, and consider other online tools like City Budget. I know from my experience as a social media manager that managing online communities can be time consuming, but there are ways we can make it work without involving a tonne of person-hours, which I fully appreciate the city wants to avoid.
3. Create more opportunities for volunteering with the city and local institutions
Volunteering for various groups is an extremely gratifying cornerstone of my life in Nelson. We have an incredible volunteer base, especially given our relatively small population base. Nelson’s volunteers feed the hungry, build trails, and fundraise to execute projects like the skate park, climbing wall, and Civic Theatre. But as they say, many hands make light work. I believe we should encourage every adult in Nelson to commit to at least 40 volunteer hours per year to their favourite cause. Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we even got half that number?
ACTION: I’d like to explore offering a semi-annual volunteer fair, where organizations can have information booths and citizens can explore their volunteering options under one roof.
4. Increase committee engagement
At the city level, I think we could involve more people in our committees. We have an Advisory Planning Commission, Housing Committee, and Cultural Development Committee, but there is only so much these groups can accomplish within their mandates.
ACTION: I think these groups should launch more subcommittees to help develop and execute ideas. And I think there is a case to be made for the establishment of new committees, such as:
- Parks & Trails Committee to provide public input on the maintenance and evolution of these assets
- Civic Engagement Committee to really delve into raising awareness and promoting involvement with our civic institutions and our community’s non-profits and charities.
Making It Happen
The benefits of higher engagement are many. Higher voter turnout, more volunteers to support our many organizations, healthier neighbourhoods, and happier people. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that part. Studies actually show that people who are more involved with their communities are happier and healthier. That alone is reason enough to make this a goal we should all be working towards.
In Case I Haven’t Made My Point Clear…
On November 15, you should vote. *Ahem* hopefully for me. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Central School located at 811 Stanley Street, Nelson B.C.
Who can vote? Residents of Nelson who are 18 years or older, have lived in BC for at least six months and are Canadian citizens are eligible to vote. You do not need to own property to vote, but you need two pieces of ID. More on that here.
And if you have not yet registered to vote, you can register on voting day. Easy peasy.