District starts voting message

Wants to increase turnout for Nov. 15 municipal election

Those who relied heavily on social media in the 2011 municipal election may have lost votes, according to the District of Maple Ridge’s manager of corporate communication.

“They were counting on social media to be a bigger deal than it was,” Fred Armstrong said as Maple Ridge readies to roll out its campaign to increase voter turnout Nov. 15.

Those who used a variety of means to get their message out in 2011 were the people who had the greatest success, he added.

As well, changes in the way Facebook shares posts means fewer people are seeing those by other people – unless someone has paid along the way.

Armstrong bases that on the district’s own experience.

Last year, photo galleries of community events would be seen by 1,000 people.

With the change in the way in which posts are now shared, “We’ve seen some of those numbers drop to half that.”

That makes sense, according to SFU communications professor Peter Chow-White.

That could because of greater privacy controls on Facebook, he said.

He pointed out Facebook has recently changed its default settings so that posts from new users only go to a Facebook users friends rather than the public.

Facebook is used as a tool for segmenting and analyzing data for advertisers, allowing targeting of audiences based on traffic patterns.

The district’s voter campaign aims to improve the 20 per cent turnout from the 2011 election.

Ads will start in June to try to get across the message that it’s easy and quick to cast a ballot.

And the intent is to get voters interested before the summer vacation lull, so they can retain their interest in the election in the fall.

“We’re trying to find the best method of making people aware that there is an election,” Armstrong said.

But it’s a tough sell.

People may be more interested in national issues over which they have no say, but it’s the local issues on which they can have direct input.

“Municipal politics is probably the area of government that affects their lives the most,” said Armstrong.

“A property zoning, a construction project in their neighbourhood, a new road widening, this can have a profound effect on your life and these are municipal elections.”

Despite that, people still don’t show up to vote.

Issues and personalities can determine sometimes increase voter turnout, whereas a large number of candidates can discourage that.

It’s people’s right to run for office but, “I really wonder if some of them have any expectation of getting elected,” and are just running to advance their causes, Armstrong said.

In Pitt Meadows, staff have $30,000, and increase of $7,000, to promote the upcoming civic election.

According to the report “Getting the Majority to Vote,” by the Columbia Institute, 70 to 80 per cent of eligible voters in B.C. didn’t vote in the last civic election.

Vancouver, with higher profile municipal politicians and well-funded campaigns, did the best among B.C.’s bigger cities with 34.6 per cent turnout.

Surrey’s turnout was 25 per cent and several other Metro Vancouver cities fared even worse, with mayors and councils elected on turnouts ranging from 21 to 25 per cent in Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam and on the North Shore.

Pitt Meadows recorded 30 per cent turnout, compared to 20  in Maple Ridge.

Report author Norman Gludovatz recommends preregistration of teens while they’re still in high school in an attempt to develop life-long voting habits among youth, whose turnout is worse than older age groups.

Gludovatz notes local elections are complex, requiring voters to choose multiple candidates for mayor, city council and school board, unlike federal and provincial elections, in which voters pick just one candidate.

It’s simpler in many other parts of Canada, where ward systems mean people vote to fill only one council seat in their area, not multiple councillors for the whole city.

A growing number of people are feeling disconnected, particularly in fast-growing populations where newcomers have little or no social network, Gludovatz said.

Pitt council has suggested that residents be given voter cards to tell them where and how to vote and that more polling stations be opened. Staff give a report to council on the issue next week.

Maybe voters will get stickers saying they voted, said chief election officer Kelly Kenney.

Perhaps balloons could be stuck on to polling stations, she said.

“We’ve traditionally, had quite a high turnout.”

But it’s been dropping as well.

In 1999, about 42 per cent of Pitt Meadows voters turned out.

That dropped to 35 per cent in 2002 and 27 per cent in 2005 and to 23 per cent in 2008.

The 2014 election also likely marks the move to four-year terms for councillors, up from three as well as stricter disclosure rules for campaigns.

Legislation in March proposed that candidates have only 90 days instead of 120 days to file their campaign disclosure forms that identifies who contributed to their campaigns. Elections B.C. could also take over the enforcement of that rule instead of leaving it up to cities.

Third parties who sponsor ads would also have to register and disclose their expenses, and each election sign would have sign to disclose who paid for it.

For Armstrong, whose dad served as a U.N. peacekeeper in parts of the world where people couldn’t vote, voting is a duty.

“It was pounded into me the responsibility of voting at all levels. It was something I was taught. It was a civic duty.”