Election — Getting Out The Door On E-Day

Voter participation has been on the decline for years. Will this election be any different?
Chelsey Schmidtke

Ashley Orr didn’t vote in the last federal election. The 23-year-old NAIT student was curious enough about voting at the time, but she didn’t know what polling station to go to, and so didn’t cast a ballot.

She’s not letting that happen this time around. Frustrated by a minority government that she says isn’t representing the interests of Canadians, she decided to take things more seriously this election. Not only does she plan on voting, she’s getting involved in the election as a volunteer.

On this sunny evening, she’s sitting on a couch with a group of articulate NDP volunteers in a corner of Linda Duncan’s campaign office on Whyte Avenue. As the discussion roams from international and American politics to generational differences, attentions drift between cell phones, the TV in the corner and various side conversations. Behind them, other volunteers are working the phones, and chatting as they dig into lasagna and other homemade goodies.

Looking around the room, it’s hard to square this image with the voter turn out in the last federal election. In 2008, voter turn out hit a historic low at 58.8 per cent. In the 18- to 24-year-old age group, only 37.4 per cent of eligible voters cast a

But it’s tempting to be more optimistic this election. Earlier this week, Elections Canada issued a preliminary estimate of advanced polls over the holiday weekend, reporting a 34.5 per cent increase in advanced  voting over the 2008 election. The other difference this election is that some campuses across the country have organized flash mobs in support of voting.

Steve Patten, a political science professor at the University of Alberta with a special interest in federal politics, says many factors motivate people to vote, or discourage them enough to stay at home. Some are frustrated by the way our democracy works, even if they don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the parliamentary system. Other voters simply aren’t targeted because sophisticated campaign tactics, designed for a low voter turn out scenario, only reach specific groups.

“It’s not about appealing to all Canadians and getting all sorts of people out to vote and building the biggest tent,” he says. “It’s about building a set of votes that wins more than 154 seats across the country.”


Fair Weather Friends

Political parties are election machines, Patten says, with little presence in the community outside of elections. The party ramps up once an election is called, motivates volunteers and focuses on getting their base of supporters out to vote.

Election volunteers are already engaged citizens, talking to other supporters and some swing voters. There’s very little outreach to undecided, and unengaged people.

“It’s not as if parties have a place in our communities like our community leagues or the local Amnesty International group or the local chamber of commerce,” he says.

Also, political strategies are now designed to win in elections with low voter turnout, he says. In the same way that broadcasters target a specific audience with channels like Turner Classic Movies or Spike TV, parties also zero in on specific audiences.

One example of this is the Conservative promise to push though their crime bills in one big package as soon as they get a majority government. This promise directly targets social conservatives. This group knows that Stephen Harper has also promised not to re-open the abortion debate, which might work to keep them at home. The crime bill shows them that it is important to get out and vote, Patten says.

Harper’s repeated call for a majority also targets conservatives that may have stayed home last time around, he says.


The Local Scene

The race at the riding level also makes a difference, Patten says, with large margins of victory keeping some voters at home, while tight races energize others.

In many ways, Edmonton-Strathcona is the toughest fight in the province. In 2008, it had the largest voter turn out in Alberta.

“It’s fun to feel like you are making a huge difference in a campaign,” Conservative volunteer Brad Tennant says. The 24-year-old University of Alberta political science student got involved in Ryan Hastman’s campaign not only because of his past involvement in the party, but also because he knew that the previous Tory candidate Rahim Jaffer had lost by only 442 votes. “I consider it a privilege to work on a campaign that’s so close,” he says.

Hastman’s team declined a request to interview the candidate himself, saying he was too busy.

Linda Duncan, the NDP incumbent for Edmonton-Strathcona, says her campaign is reaching out to voters of all stripes.

It’s Elections Canada that hasn’t done their part to encourage more students to vote, she says. With the term ending before Election Day, advanced polls should have been placed on every post-secondary campus, she says.

“A lot of university students don’t necessarily go home where they could vote,” she says. “Students work overseas, there are internships, holidays, or they may be working somewhere else. It basically means they are disenfranchised.”

Duncan points out that her team provides rides for students to the polls, no matter what party they are voting for.

For his part, Patten says encouraging more students to vote is a pretty safe bet for Duncan, because student voters are already generally leaning towards the NDP.


From The Outside

As a recent outsider, Orr says nasty tactics also turn off voters. If political parties are too aggressive or partisan, that makes politics less attractive to outsiders, says Orr.

“Smear campaigns make people give up on their politicians all together,” she says. “It makes it very difficult to be actively involved when no one’s encouraging democracy. I don’t think it’s being handled properly.”

In the Hastman camp, Lauren Armstrong says that voters are worn out by too many elections, pointing to the five elections since 2000, and that’s why voter turn out is down. She says that attack ads may be part of that, but it’s not the real reason.

‘There’s voter fatigue,” she says. “It neutralizes people to the value of it.”

For Orr, the opposite is true. The additional elections make her optimistic about voter turn out.

People are paying more attention to the way Parliament works, she says, and are better informed this time around. “I think it will get better, “ she says.


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