Wedge issues and fear politics win when voters stay home, pollsters say
By Tom Barrett
Chances are the next government of B.C. will be chosen by approximately half of all eligible voters. That means that even in a landslide the winning party will probably have the support of no more than a quarter of all the province’s citizens.
Like other Canadians, British Columbians are becoming less and less inclined to vote. In the 2009 provincial election, only 51 per cent of all estimated eligible voters bothered to turn out.
A lot has been written about falling turnout rates and the precise causes of the decline are still largely a mystery. Some blame a dwindling sense of civic duty in young people. Some blame negative, fear-based campaigns.
But there’s another side to it. 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. That’s led parties to build their campaigns around strong differences “that will essentially scare their voters into getting up and going to vote,” said Lyle. Continue reading