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Pollsters ponder how voter turnout might spin BC's election

Much has been written about how tanking voter turnout affects democracy. And B.C. is not immune. In the 2009 provincial election, only 51 per cent of all estimated eligible voters bothered to turn out.

But as pollsters point out, declining turnout also affects how elections are fought. Ironically, the more that voters stay home because of politicians' bad behaviour, the more likely politicians may be to behave badly.

"Turnout is increasingly becoming more important than persuasion in elections," pollster Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group, said in an interview.

Lyle said that in the old days, when turnout was in the 70 per cent range or higher, campaigns concentrated on wooing ambivalent voters, or what Lyle referred to as "cross-pressured" voters.

"They're concerned about balanced budgets, but they're concerned about waiting lists at hospitals and they want to hear a balanced argument," he said. "They don't want someone to just focus on one [issue] or the other."

But as the turnout gets lower and lower, the people who show up to vote tend to be the ones who aren't cross-pressured -- "people that have very consistent points of view, very ideological positions," said Lyle, who was Gordon Campbell's campaign director in the 1996 B.C. election.

While it's a long way to Election Day in B.C., Lyle did make this early prediction.

"At this point, odds are it's the Liberals who are going to have a harder time turning out their vote than the NDP," he said. "If there's a 45 per cent turnout, I wouldn't panic if I was the NDP.

Because my voters are mad and excited, so they're likely to show up. They're more likely to show up than a disillusioned, disenchanted, despairing Liberal."

Editor: To read Tom Barrett's full feature on how waning voter turnout in British Columbia changes the tone of our politics, and how it affects the province's parties, click here.

Tom Barrett is a Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor. Find him on Twitter.

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