Explained: Winnipeg’s voter-turnout struggle

Winnipeg in the Canadian province of Manitoba

By Joshua Frey-Sam

Municipal elections are incredibly important because they decide who represents the closest level of government to us. While most electors understand the significance of casting a ballot, getting people in Winnipeg to turn out to vote in local elections is a struggle.

It’s a head-scratching trend plaguing cities across the country and even experts aren’t sure how to fix it.

Municipal governments are viewed as the most direct form of administration to people. They pick up the trash, maintain water systems and manage police, roads, parks and recreation.

But if our lives are so affected by the municipal government, why can Winnipeg barely get half of its population to fulfill their civic duty, and how can municipalities in general get more people to show up?

Link: Winnipeg’s 2022 official election site

One political scientist says there’s probably not a lot to be done to get more citizens out to vote.

“I very much doubt there’s anything municipalities or individual candidates can do to dramatically improve engagement or turnout,” says Andrew Sancton, a retired political scientist and former professor at Western University in London, Ontario.

Sancton, whose interest lies in all aspects of local government and electoral boundaries, says he’s been asked questions about voter turnout for more than 50 years. He believes municipal elections work at somewhat of a disadvantage.

“I think municipalities do a pretty good job of promoting elections and encouraging participation, but the media pays more attention to elections at the provincial and national level,” he says.

Municipal elections can also get a bit confusing for voters as candidates in Winnipeg don’t carry political party labels, making it difficult for people to figure out who they should, or could, vote for.

“I think most just give up and figure it’s not worth it,” Sancton says.

According to mypeg.ca, Winnipeg has reached 60 per cent voter turnout just once since 1993. Since 2002, the highest turnout is 50.23 per cent in 2014 – and at the time, voter turnout had gone up for the fourth consecutive election — but that number dropped to 42.33 per cent in the most recent election (2018).

The reason for 2018’s low turnout seems two-fold: A Winnipeg Free Press article revealed the results from a survey following the election, saying of the more than 1,000 respondents, 70.5 per cent felt voting in the municipal election was their duty, whereas the remaining 29.5 per cent felt it was their choice.

The second reason — and why most think voters didn’t show — was that many respondents assumed the election was a foregone conclusion. Brian Bowman, the 2014 incumbent, was the clear front-runner in most people’s eyes, leaving many voters feeling as though their ballot wasn’t going to make a difference.

With Bowman announcing he will not run again in 2022, it’s fair to wonder if Winnipeg will see an uptick in turnout this year.

Younger generation has the power

Sancton says it often takes a phenomenon or big piece of news to get more people to care about local government. The certainty of a new face at the helm could be what Winnipeg needs.

But possibly the biggest barrier in getting people to show up to the polling station is age, or responsibility, to be more specific.

“The things that municipal government does, although very important to people’s lives, don’t get people terribly excited unless they’re homeowners and they pay property taxes,” Sancton says.

According to the 2016 Census, more than one in three young adults aged 20 to 34 were living with at least one parent, a share that has increased since 2001.

That same statistical survey shows people ages 20-29 make up more than 14 per cent of Winnipeg’s population.

Young adults are moving out of their parent’s homes later than ever before, leaving many of them to believe the municipal government has little bearing on their lives.

“I think the real challenge is to convince people who are renting, or not directly paying property taxes themselves, that what is happening is important to them,” Sancton says.

Being that renters are typically young adults, one angle Sancton says could be used to drive voter engagement is by emphasizing that the municipal government oversees the availability of affordable housing.

“That would be my pitch.”

Twitter: @jfreysam

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