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'Alarm bells go off': elections chief on low BC voter turnout

VICTORIA - Chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld said he is disappointed and alarmed by the low turnout of voters for British Columbia's May 12 election. “Quite frankly the 50 percent mark to me is where the alarm bells go off,” he said.

Only 48 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the election, the lowest turnout in decades.

Political scientist Norman Ruff said the low turnout puts the legitimacy of the political system in question, the Tyee reported.

“Norman's point is bang on,” said Neufeld. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, the B.C. Liberal Party won with 46 percent of the vote, but with only 50 percent voting, that means Premier Gordon Campbell received the support of 23 percent of the people who could have voted, he said.

“I'm not arguing against first-past-the-post, but I'm arguing against low turnout and first-past-the-post giving legitimacy to whoever's elected,” he said.

After the 2005 election Elections B.C. did a survey to find out what prevented people from voting. The biggest factors were people being distracted or too busy to vote and people who felt disconnected from politics, Neufeld said.

Elections B.C. did things like extending advance voting, developing a better voters' list and otherwise making it more convenient to vote. “I thought some of the things we did in response to what non-voters told us kept them from voting in 2005 would have had an affect,” Neufeld said. “Something in the whole equation, voters were not inclined to go out and vote . . . I am part of the equation, but I don't own the whole equation in terms of voter turnout. It's the old adage about the horse and the water.”

Media did cover the election, he said, and information was there for people who chose to pay attention. If people are tuning out though, “We've got a more fundamental issue about democratic engagement and what being involved in society and community means in the 21st century.”

The independent agency has $50,000 a year to spend on education kits that go to students in grades five and 11, but has little budget to build voter engagement between elections. The Tyee reported in December that government funding for the agency fell short of what it needed. “I'm still in a quandary,” said Neufeld. “I don't know what happens at end of March.”

The solutions will need to be part of a much wider push needed to make voting as natural for people as recycling has become, he said. That means strengthening civics classes in B.C. schools and finding ways to engage the people least likely to vote, including new Canadians, the poor and people with lower education.

“Somebody's going to have to pay attention to this year in year out,” Neufeld said.

Elections B.C. has launched another survey and will continue to look for ways to improve turnout, he said. “We do a big postmortem that goes on for months and months.”

Neufeld said he has not heard many complaints about the new identification rules preventing people from voting.

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

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