Two competing visions. Electricity. Acrimony. An election to decide the future of the city. And from the electorate – muted interest.
About 36 percent of eligible Port Moody voters did their civic duty last Saturday – a two percent dip from 2018.
The most popular candidate on the ballot, Mayor-elect Meghan Lahti, garnered 4,938 votes and won by a comfortable margin.
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But consider this: if apathy was a municipal party, Lahti would’ve lost in a landslide. More than 15,000 eligible voters decided not to cast a ballot.
And while Port Moody’s turnout was uninspiring, it was also – mathematically speaking – twice as good as Port Coquitlam’s.
With no mayoral race to galvanize voters, turnout in Port Coquitlam was 18 percent – a 10 percent drop from 2018.
In Coquitlam, Mayor Richard Stewart fended off two challengers in his successful re-election bid, garnering 14,105 votes. Four out of five Coquitlam voters stayed home.
The turnout paradox
Across the province, we seem to be seeing a paradox in the turnout, explained Quest University political science professor Stewart Prest.
“This was a change in election in a lot of cities. We saw a lot of mayors changing,” he said. “Usually, you associate that with a high turnout.”
However, it seems there’s a small, frustrated group who seem to be successful in swaying elections.
Have we given up?
After the results were announced at his Coquitlam campaign headquarters, Coquitlam mayoral candidate Adel Gamar seemed as distressed by the 20.33 percent turnout as he was by his loss.
There’s a fear, he said, that Coquitlam residents have “given up.”
Just telling people to vote isn’t enough, Gamar reasoned. There needs to be a re-examination of the city’s approach to community outreach.
“How do we inform people and allow people the opportunity to see the decisions that are made at city hall are so vital?” he asked.
After losing her seat on council by two votes, Port Moody Coun. Amy Lubik considered the city’s lacklustre turnout.
“It’s the level of politics that really is closest to home,” she said. “There’s so many things the city can do on the social and environmental determinants of health that really make a big difference. . . . I wish more people would take that into account.”
Lubik attributed some of the voter apathy to the way cities switched to online communication during the pandemic.
“That’s not always best for bridge-building and making people feel really hopeful.”
The 18 percent turnout in Port Coquitlam is “a bit worrisome,” Prest said, explaining that there seems to be a long-term decline in the emphasis on voting as a civic duty.
“For many voters, or potential voters, politics seems like it really either doesn’t matter to them or is inaccessible.”
Younger people and marginalized communities tend to be less likely to vote, Prest said.
“It has to do with that sense of belonging. . . If you are feeling like you’re more marginal to the community you may not see it as being worth your time,” he said. “Not everyone has a lot of free time.”
Conversely, voters tend to be more socio-economically advantaged, they tend to be older, they tend to be homeowners, Prest said.
“They tend to represent the relatively well-off within society,” he said. “That will really skew the results towards perhaps a more cautious approach to policymaking.”
A view from two voters
When making her decision, Georgia Title said she chose candidates who reflected her views on the climate crisis, growth, density, and livability.
“I also chose women. We are half the population. We should be more represented,” she wrote in an email to the Dispatch.
Title also mentioned that she was “horrified” to see candidates representing ParentsVoice B.C.
“For me, any religious or regressive groups should stay out of our schools & our politics. I fervently hope they are now aware that we as a society believe we all have every right to our own religious beliefs, as long as it stays in churches and homes. It does not belong in our governing bodies.”
A Coquitlam resident who asked to remain anonymous due to possible social media backlash explained that she supported Richard Stewart despite having a few qualms with his leadership.
“The only real challenger, Mr. Gamar while having good personal credentials . . . has zero experience running a city and needs to be on council before wanting the top job,” she wrote. “I voted for Paul Lambert because he shares my opinion that development has gotten out of hand. . . . Too bad he lost as we needed his voice of reason.”
It’s easier to continue a conversation than to start one. Moving forward, it behooves us to figure out a way to start a better conversation about municipal politics, Prest explained.
“It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where the things that get talked about are the things that people are already familiar with,” he said.
Despite the impact of municipal politics on housing and transportation and hundreds of small things that make up a city, people tend to focus on other levels of government as well as other countries, Prest noted.
“When I teach politics, quite often students know more about American politics than Canadian politics,” Prest said.
For a representative government to work the way it’s supposed to, it’s paramount that residents feel represented.
“For a democracy to truly work we want to hear from the full range of views within society, we want all citizens to be engaged and expressing themselves so that we make choices that are truly representative of what the population wants,” Prest said.