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Low voter turnout endangers political system: Ruff

VICTORIA - As voter turnout drops the political system will likely be seen as less legitimate, said a veteran political scientist after the British Columbia election results showed a minority of eligible voters cast ballots.

“When you start to get below 50 percent turnout you have to worry about the legitimacy of the political system,” said Norman Ruff, a political scientist who taught at the University of Victoria. “We're heading there.”

Figures from Elections B.C. show the total number of valid votes dropped from the 2005 election, and 52 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Calculated based on the number of people who were eligible to vote, the turnout number drops to 48 percent.

Elections B.C. released preliminary regional figures today that show turnout based on registered voters was lowest in Peace River North (37 percent), Peace River South (42 percent) and Vancouver-Mount Pleasant (42 percent).

At the other end, Delta South, where Attorney General Wally Oppal was in a tight fight--the final result of which may not be certain until the end of the month--with independent Vicki Huntington had a 67 percent turnout. Parksville-Qualicum (64 percent), Saanich South (64 percent), Saanich North and the Islands (63 percent) and Oak Bay-Gordon Head (63 percent) also had relatively high turnout.

The four Burnaby constituencies, seen as swing seats and contested heavily by both the Liberals and the NDP, all had turnouts below 50 percent.

Ruff said declining turnout appears to be a global phenomenon, and politicians deserve a big part of the blame. “I don't think the Liberals or NDP really connected with what's on the minds of people in British Columbia,” he said. “There's a disconnect between the focus of the parties and what ordinary British Columbians have on their minds.”

There were many issues the parties could have hammered on, he said, but “The two parties were campaigning about Mr. Campbell.”

New voter identification rules, introduced last year by the Liberal government, may also have played a role, he said. “Rather than removing obstacles, you're adding to them . . . The more obstacles you put up you're denying them access to the ballot box.”

Elections B.C. spokesperson Kenn Faris said the drop in turnout was surprising considering advanced voting was significantly higher than in past years. Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld had predicted general turnout in the range of 62 percent.

Neufeld was in meetings yesterday working on a survey to find out what happened. Said Faris, “We do a post election survey through B.C. Stats to identify things like disenfranchisement.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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