Boosting Montreal's dismal election turnout won't be easy, but there are remedies available

·4 min read
Boosting Montreal's dismal election turnout won't be easy, but there are remedies available

Valérie Plante is back for a second term after securing more than half of all votes cast.

But only 38 per cent of all eligible voters in the city took part — four percentage points less than the paltry number recorded four years ago.

Municipal elections traditionally garner a lower turnout than provincial and federal elections (62 per cent of eligible voters participated in the federal election this fall).

In the last 30 years, voter turnout in Montreal has climbed above 50 per cent only once and reached a low point in 2005, at just under 35 per cent.

Though there are long-standing causes for low participation, one prominent advocate for participatory democracy said early registration deadlines and having to register in person are two barriers that may prevent people from voting.

"It's frustrating to see so many citizens and young people and civil society folks who do the work that we do, putting so much energy into this and then consistently seeing the electoral process itself sort of working against us," said Samantha Reusch, executive director of the voter mobilization group Apathy is Boring.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

Province open to changes

This year, Montrealers had to be registered by Oct. 18, almost three weeks before election day. In contrast, in federal elections, voters can register when they show up at the polling station.

Élections Montréal spokesperson André Chapleau said in an interview he was discouraged by the turnout in Montreal.

He said the difficulty some people had in registering to vote — and the deadline to do so — would need to be changed by the provincial government.

But he also pointed out that polls were open for a combined 42 hours over four days, including two days of advanced voting and the two-day election, held on Saturday and Sunday.

WATCH | Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante on the factors that may lower voter participation:

When pressed, Chapleau said the reasons why people "just didn't come to the polling stations are hard to explain."

A spokesperson for Andrée Lavallee, Quebec's minister for municipal affairs, said the provincial government was open to finding ways to improve voter turnout.

In a statement, Bénédicte Trottier Lavoie said the province is considering making voting by mail and electronically available to all for the next round of municipal elections, in 2025.

Declining civic engagement is nothing new

The turnout varied widely by borough.

In Outremont, for instance, 56 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, while in Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce 34 per cent did so, and in Montréal-Nord, only 29 per cent, as of late Monday.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

Plante expressed disappointment when asked about the low turnout the morning after her victory.

"We always want to have a bigger turnout because so much energy is being put into a campaign, knocking on doors and asking for people to share their thoughts, their aspirations," she said at her first news conference since the win.

"We take this so seriously."

Plante suggested the recent federal election and the pandemic had both contributed to fatigue among voters.

But low turnout is a chronic problem in municipal elections across Canada and the United States, even if city governments oversee hundreds of millions of dollars and make decisions that directly affect the lives of voters, from the role of policing to the management of sports and recreation facilities.

In a New York Times opinion column, one voting expert suggested holding municipal and school board elections at the same time as those at the state or federal level to boost turnout to address the problem, which is even more dire in parts of the United States.

In New York, 25 per cent of voters cast a ballot in 2017 and in Los Angeles, only 20 per cent.

Broadly speaking, research shows smaller cities tend to have better results when it comes to municipal elections.

A 2016 study in Quebec suggested this may be because in cities with smaller populations, people could feel their vote may make a bigger difference.

Smaller cities also tend to have more homeowners, who typically are more informed and invested in municipal politics than renters.

In Sunday's vote, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Sagnenay all saw slightly higher participation (with an average of 45 per cent voter turnout) than the province's largest metropolis.

Overcoming voter apathy

Reusch, whose work centres on growing civic engagement among youth, believes increasing voter turnout is a long-term endeavour that can't just be done during election season.

She said there needs to be more civic education and local media coverage to keep people informed, but that politicians also have a role to play.

Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC
Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC

Representatives should be building relationships with their constituents and being transparent so people feel their vote does matter, she said.

With respect to Sunday's vote, the low turnout may have actually worked in favour of Plante, who had a better result than in 2017, said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University and the director of the Institute for the Study of Canada.

"A lot of people, maybe, were not happy but they didn't show up to vote, so they certainly weren't mobilized to change things," he said. "Valérie Plante and her team, they were able to get out the vote in terms of their base."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting