CANADA

Voting early and often

Overlapping elections cause voter fatigue

PAUL KAIHLA November 7 1988
CANADA

Voting early and often

Overlapping elections cause voter fatigue

PAUL KAIHLA November 7 1988

Voting early and often

CANADA

Overlapping elections cause voter fatigue

The facade of the vacant building on Toronto’s Gerrard Street is plastered with 18 campaign placards that promote four candidates in two different elections. On Nov. 14, voters will elect candidates to 233 local government and school board posts in Metropolitan Toronto’s six municipalities. Then, on Nov. 21, citizens will troop back to the polls to choose members of Parliament for the city’s 23 federal ridings. In the span of eight days, voters will decide the fate of 818 aspiring mayors, city councillors, school trustees and politicians, 192 of whom are contesting federal seats. Said Toronto Councillor Jack Layton, who is running for alderman in the city’s Ward 6: “The public is totally bewildered by the variety of names being presented on every veranda in the city. The federal election has generated an additional level of confusion, and people are going into the municipal campaign with less information.”

In Saskatchewan, local elections on Oct. 26, focusing on a debate over tax cuts, overshadowed the national race. But in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia, the federal campaign has made it difficult for many voters to concentrate on scores of municipal elections, some recently completed and others still pending. Most municipal politicians say that the federal election has siphoned off volunteers, campaign funds and media coverage. And many local candidates say that overlapping elections may result in voter fatigue and a lower turnout for them at the polls. Nova Scotians had their civic elections on Oct. 15, but British Columbia’s local voting is taking place only two days before the federal election. Said Michael Campbell, campaign manager for Vancouver’s Non-Partisan Association civic party: “Some people do not even know that there is a municipal election.”

In Toronto, veteran politicians predict that less than 30 per cent of the city’s 457,943 eligible voters—compared with the usual 35 to 40 per cent—will turn out for the municipal elections. Members of the Downtown New Democrats association—which has five candidates running for Toronto city council and school board—complained that the federal election has drained their party’s resources. Layton, one of the association’s candidates, said that in past elections the group has had up to 500 campaign volunteers to knock on doors, answer telephones and distribute signs and leaflets. This year, there are only 300 volunteers. In Vancouver, the NDP-oriented Committee of Progressive Electors, which runs candidates municipally, got around a similar problem by sharing volunteers with the federal party.

In Nova Scotia, the 600,000 electors have been awash in the democratic process since Premier John Buchanan called a provincial election last July 30. They returned his Progressive Conservative government with a reduced majority on Sept. 6. Then the province had its municipal elections, and voters are now getting ready for Nov. 21. Concluded Michael Savage, who ran his father John’s successful campaign for re-election as mayor of Dartmouth: “There have been a hell of a lot of elections.”

Meanwhile in Saskatchewan, controversial resolutions on many local ballots fuelled intense voter interest. In both Regina and Saskatoon, there were record voter turnouts of more than 50 per cent. Regina voters defeated a proposal to reduce municipal taxes by 10 per cent, after a bitter campaign that pitched local business groups against city hall and unions representing civic employees. The 560-member Regina Business Alliance, which includes companies that stood to save as much as $21,500 each from the proposed tax reduction, said that Regina’s taxes were as much as 37 per cent higher than Saskatoon’s. But Regina city council spent $55,700 on an advertising campaign warning that the tax cut could reduce municipal services such as police protection and fire fighting. Former alderman and NDP member Douglas Archer won a hotly contested mayoral race by opposing the tax reduction. Said Larry Schneider, who resigned as Regina’s mayor to run federally for the Conservatives: “I do not think that anyone has been enthusiastic about the federal election. The municipal election has been uppermost in people’s minds.”

But voter exhaustion will probably be highest in the Vancouver Island community of Port Albemi. Its residents will vote in three elections in rapid succession. Two of them are on Nov. 19: the municipal election and a provincial byelection to fill a vacancy left by former NDP MLA Robert Skelly, who resigned to run as a federal candidate in the riding of Comox-Alberni. And just two days later is the federal election. So far, there are 17 candidates running in the three races. Adding a provincial byelection to the mix, said Shirley Bonfield, president of the Albemi District Teachers’ Association, means that voters will have trouble identifying “who is running for what.”

But even in areas with just two elections, many municipal politicians have criticized the federal government for creating confusion among voters. Said veteran Vancouver aiderman Donald Bellamy, who is running for reelection: “The federal government does not take municipal elections into consideration. They should have delayed the national election at least a week—it’s crazy to have it right after a municipal election.” In cities and towns across the country, hundreds of would-be local politicians strapped for campaign resources share that dismay.

PAUL KAIHLA with DEBORRA SCHUG in Vancouver, DEANA DRIVER in Regina, SUSAN FLORY in Ottawa and GLEN ALLEN in Halifax

PAUL KAIHLA

DEBORRA SCHUG

DEANA DRIVER

SUSAN FLORY

GLEN ALLEN