Municipal voters: 4 turn out, 6 tune out

Voter turnout in municipal elections in Canada is abysmally low, generally averaging just shy of 40%. Think about it. That means for every ten municipal voters, four turn out to vote ... and six tune out entirely. It's a sad state of affairs.

If you look at the past five municipal elections in Canada's 20 largest cities - for a total of 100 elections spanning two decades - the average turnout is 38.3%, with variation. On the low end, the turnout in Calgary's 2004 municipal election was just 18%. In 2003 in Mississauga, turnout was 20%. On the high end, turnout peaked at 60% in a Quebec City election in 2001, and 58.1% in Calgary in 2017. Of the 100 elections, turnout only topped 50% in 14 races.

Indeed, a sad state of affairs.

What motivates voters to head to the polls? What drives turnout? A recent article on this very question reached a similar conclusion to many other studies on the topic:

"The competitiveness of an election has by far the greatest influence on municipal election participation." [1]

This makes logical sense. Voters turn out when the race is hot; when the stakes are high; when casting a ballot seems like it may actually make a difference.

Unfortunately, not every election has this kind of dramatic flare. Let's look at our selection of 100 elections (the past five races in Canada's 20 largest cities), with a particular interest in the mayoral race:

  • In 73 of these elections, the incumbent mayor ran again. Spoiler alert: incumbency is a huge advantage. The incumbent won 77% of the time - and often with big margins. On average, the incumbent received a whopping 42.9 percentage points more of the vote share than the runner up (although, in fairness, several elections with Hazel McCallion skew this result. In 2000, McCallion received 92.1% of the vote compared to just 3.2% support for her closest competitor).
  • Turnout tends to be higher in races where the incumbent mayor runs and loses (average turnout of 42.6%). In races where the incumbent ran and won, turnout is suppressed (average turnout of 35.8%).
  • When there is no incumbent mayor running, more candidates step up. An average of 14 candidates ran in elections with no incumbent mayor, compared to 8 candidates in races where the incumbent ran.
  • Turnout is highest in competitive races (no surprise!). As shown in the chart below, when the difference in vote share between the winner and runner up is less than 10 percentage points, turnout averages at 42.7%. In cases where the difference is greater than 40 percentage points, turnout averaged at 33.6%. Tight races are exciting, and motivating for voters to head to the polls.

Election season is upon us, with more than 1000 municipal elections in Canada over the next five weeks. There are important, competitive, exciting races happening - and more people need to know about them (which is a big part of the motivation for this website).

There are important decisions to be made about who leads our cities in the years to come. Let's hope we see more than four in ten voters tune in and turn out to make these choices.



[1] Breux, Couture and Koop, “Turnout in Local Elections: Evidence from Canadian Cities, 2004-2014,” Canadian Journal of Political Science (September 2017).

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