Chilliwack is nearing the end of what has to be the most compelling, contentious, interesting and divisive municipal election in decades.
At city hall we have two sitting city councillors running for mayor against a three-time incumbent who has never faced a serious challenger in the past. There are 14 candidates running for city council to fill six seats, and three of these winners (at least) will be new faces because of the retirement of Chuck Stam and the two running for mayor.
Then there is the school board race, which has been as divisive as any ever as the SOGI 123 teaching resource is debated.
So how many people will vote? Traditionally municipal voter turnout has the lowest numbers compared to provincial or federal elections. And Chilliwack’s has been particularly low.
In the last municipal election of 58,213 eligible voters in Chilliwack, 14,883 cast ballots, or 25.6 per cent. In 2008, out of 51912 eligible a similarly low 12,633 voted or 24.3 per cent.
In both those elections in 2014 and 2008, Sharon Gaetz won the mayor’s seat, but she did so handily against relative unknowns. In the 2011 election, Gaetz was acclaimed to the top job and the lack of a mayoral race was seen at the polls. Out of 58,213 eligible voters, just 9,343 or 16 per cent voted.
University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) political scientist professor Hamish Telford says low municipal voter turnout has a couple of causes.
“We do see a hierarchy,” Telford said this week. “So voter turnout is highest for federal, next for provincial and municipal at the bottom. And I think it’s a combination of perceived importance as well as media coverage.”
During a federal election campaign, the major parties can spend considerable dollars on television advertising, and the issues receive broad coverage in regional and national news.
For a municipal election in Chilliwack, it’s The Progress and that’s about it.
”When people turn on their local supper hour news, if there is municipal coverage it’s Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and it doesn’t get out to the valley at all.”
And despite the fact that municipal governance is the level that most affects people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, there is a perception that it’s not as important as provincial or federal politics, Telford said.
There is also the party affiliations so for people who are barely paying attention, they still generally know they prefer Conservative, Liberal, NDP or Green, even if they don’t know candidates.
Municipally, that’s just not there and it takes research to find out how the candidates for city council and school board differ.
“The electoral system we have for local governments is not conducive to voter awareness,” said Telford, who lives in Abbotsford. “I spent my morning trying to figure out who these people are running for school trustee. If we had a ward system where we elected a councillor and a trustee to represent a particular ward of the city, it would make searching this much easier.”
Telford said in smaller communities, a lot of who people vote for comes down to personal connections.
“[Chilliwack school board incumbent] Dan Coulter was one of my former students,” he said. “If I was voting in Chilliwack,I’d probably vote for him.”
Telford added that a ward system might encourage more people to run, and might foster engagement beyond the election.
“If you have a problem with garbage pickup in your neighbourhood, you call the councillor of your ward.”
Given all that’s going on in the Chilliwack municipal election, it’s expected the voter turnout will be much higher than the typical 25 per cent.
Time will tell as election day is Saturday, Oct. 20, polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.