Winnipeg low voter turnout ‘quite disappointing’
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With a competitive race guaranteed to select a new mayor, Winnipeg voter turnout was widely expected to be strong Wednesday.
Instead, preliminary numbers show more than 60 per cent of eligible voters did not show up at the polls.
The City of Winnipeg confirmed just 37.5 per cent (195,530 of 521,291) chose to cast their ballots in advance polls or on election day Oct. 26.
“I’m a bit baffled by it because, on the one hand, we had a really tight race where people’s votes really (did) matter. And we know there’s a lot of research that people tend to get out and vote in higher numbers when they feel that their vote’s really going to make a difference,” said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal with Probe Research.
In the end, Scott Gillingham edged out Glen Murray (in an 11-candidate field) to win the mayor’s seat by just 2.25 percentage points, marking the narrowest mayoral victory since 1977.
Welch said the circumstances around Wednesday’s contest looked fit to result in a robust voter turnout, with Mayor Brian Bowman opting against running for a third term. Instead, voter participation dropped even lower than the 42.3 per cent of eligible Winnipeggers who cast ballots in 2018.
Christopher Adams, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba, also expected more voter interest.
“Something in the upper half of the 30s (per cent) is quite disappointing for an election in which we saw no incumbent for mayor and… we saw a couple of very competitive front-runners. I am disappointed and saddened by this number,” Adams said Thursday.
Winnipeggers may have more trouble deciding who to vote for in municipal elections, where candidates are not backed by a political party, unlike provincial and federal races, he added.
Adams said the high number of candidates for mayor may have made it more difficult for some voters to keep track of individual promises. “I think that having 11 candidates running, maybe… some voters (thought), ‘This is too much, too confusing to try to figure out who was who.’”
Due to the combination of a tight mayoral race and low voter turnout, Adams said Gillingham will be challenged to represent Winnipeggers after earning an especially slim mandate.
“On the plus side, he is not the type of mayor who will be polarizing… I feel quite confident that we have a mayor-elect who will be able to reach out to different parts of our society,” he said.
Gillingham told the Free Press he is ready to bring the city and council itself together.
“When I look at the way the vote has split and how close the race was, it certainly motivates me to make sure I am uniting people and working together with all people so we can build a stronger city,” he said Thursday.
Another political expert said local voters appear to be turning away from civic politics.
“People say they’re too busy (to vote), people say they don’t believe politicians will carry out their promises, people will say that there was no candidate that reflected… their preferences. But there’s (also) this underlying disillusionment with the political process, which I think is probably the main big factor,” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
Thomas said the lack of voter participation could also reflect lessening confidence in this specific municipal government.
“The city has had a rough time of it in the last decade or so, as we’ve frozen taxes or increased them marginally and things have been left undone. And people think… the city can’t fix its problems and none of these people can ride into the mayor’s office and save us from the decline that the city seems to be undergoing. And so, there’s that skepticism, if not cynicism.”
“On the plus side, he is not the type of mayor who will be polarizing… I feel quite confident that we have a mayor-elect who will be able to reach out to different parts of our society.”–Christopher Adams
Due to ample options for advance and election night voting, Thomas said he doesn’t see an option to attract more voters by making the process easier.
While he noted some countries use mandatory voting systems, though which eligible voters can be fined for failing to cast a ballot, he expects it wouldn’t address apparent disillusionment with government itself.
Wednesday’s voter turnout did not set a new low, with worse numbers logged in the 1980s, according to Marc Lemoine, City of Winnipeg senior election official.
Lemoine said the city had representatives visit seniors homes and hospitals to help reach as many voters as possible, held polls at 198 different locations on election day, and offered dozens of advance voting locations.
That made the low turnout especially disappointing, he said.
“We want to have as high a turnout as we can… All we can do here is make those opportunities available, make citizens aware of them as best we can and hope they respond.”
— With files from Chris Kitching
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
Updated on Thursday, October 27, 2022 10:14 PM CDT: Add with files from tag
Updated on Monday, October 31, 2022 1:26 PM CDT: Updates voter turnout chart, which previously reported an incorrect figure for 1980.