Voter apathy likely to blame for dismal Winnipeg turnout, prof says

With another municipal election in the books, Winnipeg voters may have set a record, but not one to be proud of.

Things seemed very encouraging when an unprecedented number of Winnipeggers managed to cast their ballot in the advance polls, but the final tally of overall votes Wednesday shows this election had one of the lowest voter turnouts in recent memory.

Only 37.5 per cent of eligible voters made it to the polls, a drop of almost five per cent compared to 2018, and a more than 13 per cent drop from 2014’s contest.

University of Manitoba political scientist Aaron Moore told Global News it’s the lowest turnout he’s aware of for a Winnipeg election.

“Part of the issue is people simply don’t find the municipal level very interesting. In a lot of municipal campaigns in the last few years, we haven’t had the same sort of big, bold promises we’ve seen in the past. And I think that’s this reality of the limited financial resources municipalities have,” he said.

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“I think a lot of people take the services municipalities provide for granted. But, you know, if we had a garbage strike tomorrow or if we had a significant problem with our water system, that’s municipal responsibility and the consequences of that can be quite severe.

“So I think people need to understand that even though it may not be as interesting as talking about foreign policy or dental plans and that sort of thing, what cities do is actually very important and we should be paying attention to it.”

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Click to play video: 'Political scientist Chris Adams on Winnipeg election results'

Political scientist Chris Adams on Winnipeg election results

Moore said it’s also notable that almost every ward in the city is returning its incumbent councillor to City Hall, which is another potential sign of voter apathy.

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“If you look at the council races, most of those are uncompetitive,” he said.

“Where we do have new council members, two of them are actually former council members. So again, I think for a lot of the public, these races weren’t very interesting.”

The winning candidate for mayor, former St. James councillor Scott Gillingham, managed to win the race with only 27.54 per cent of the vote.

Moore said it could be tough sledding for a new mayor with such a relatively small proportion of support from Winnipeg residents.

“I think Scott Gillingham is going to have a hard time, although I think with the support of council, he can maybe reach out and start to gain some more support across the city.

“But it does make him relatively weak in dealing with his former council colleagues because he doesn’t have the strength and the support among a lot of the electorate.”

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg’s mayor-elect Scott Gillingham after his election victory'

Winnipeg’s mayor-elect Scott Gillingham after his election victory

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The city’s chief election official, Marc Lemoine, called Wednesday’s voter turnout disappointing, despite a positive experience for those who voted and those who worked on the election.

“We’re always hoping for the highest possible turnout we can get,” Lemoine said.

“It’s not our only measure of success for elections, though. (It’s) really about how we undertake the election. You know, we didn’t get many complaints or many concerns raised yesterday, so that was good. And our team felt very good about the service it provided to the citizens that did come out to vote.”

Although the voter turnout wasn’t the lowest on record — Lemoine said there were lower numbers for elections back in the 1980s — but it’s definitely the lowest result among recent elections.

The highest voter turnout on record, he said, was back in 1971, when Winnipeg’s ‘unicity’ municipal amalgamation was underway. That election saw over 60 per cent turnout.

“It’s really up to (Winnipeggers) whether they choose to come out or not. We can’t force them to come out as much as we’d like to. We were able to get the results out. We feel very confident in those results that are there, and we look forward to swearing in the new mayor and council next week.”

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