In 1998, voter turnout for our municipal election was almost 46% (45.8%), while in the 2001 elections it was 38%.
By 2004, voter turnout dropped to less than 20% (19.8%).
Why is there such a great range of voter engagement and why such a significant decrease in recent years?
It’s no surprise that voter turnout greatly increases when there is a key or high profile issue at hand. In our last election, the incumbent was seen as a shoe-in, so people may not have felt their vote would make a difference.
In 1998, when the voter rate was 46%, water fluoridation was put to plebiscite – an issue Calgarians obviously had strong feelings about, which gave voters a clear way to distinguish the candidates from each other.
Political scientists suggest that municipal elections should be even more important to citizens than provincial and federal elections by the simple fact that decisions made by our city counsel have the greatest impact on our day-to-day lives.
To quote Robert Roach, of the Canada West Foundation, “This is a level of government where your vote and your access to politicians after the vote counts the most…so it’s a strange disconnect that voters have with municipal politics.”
Contrast our relatively low voter turnout with Volunteer Calgary’s Proclamation in 2005 that Calgary is the “Volunteer Capital of Canada” with a 71% rate of active participation in our city both through formal volunteering with a community organization and activities such as helping a neighbour or a community directly.
We like to think that that active rate of volunteer participation can be completely attributed to the efforts of Volunteer Calgary – while this may not be the case, we do suspect that the presence and activity of a volunteer centre does have a positive impact on volunteer engagement.
What is possible?
So why is there a disconnect between the number of people who vote in our city and the number of people who volunteer? And how might supporting volunteer engagement help motivate more people to vote?
Let’s go back to the original assumption that “People want their efforts to make a difference and their actions to make an impact.”
If this is true, we might be able to conclude that when people volunteer, they feel they are making a difference. Whether they choose to support the efforts of an organization or provide direct support to others in the community, they can typically see the impact their actions are making.
In fact, we know this to be true – research indicates that making a difference is the number one motivator for people who volunteer.
Perhaps the gap in participation between voting and volunteering is caused by the fact that people are more likely to see the difference they can make by volunteering than they can by voting.
Statistics Canada’s report on ‘Canadians and their non-voting political activity” states that knowledge of current affairs is one of the most important elements influencing involvement in political affairs because knowledge forms the basis on which to predicate action.”
With that in mind perhaps volunteering is an effective and easily accessible way to become more informed about the important issues in our community. Having more information, enables people to develop opinions and perspectives on these issues, which helps them understand and see how their vote can make a difference and have an impact.
All of this leads me to conclude that volunteer engagement is an important part of a successful democracy. The impact of volunteering on a community creates numerous benefits not only for the non-profit and for-profit business communities but is key to identifying our government’s objectives and the supporting political process itself.
So if we want to increase voter turn-out, we can start with ourselves – and encourage others to do the same. We can get involved in the issues that matter to us by volunteering, which can help us become more informed. We can use this information to develop opinions and inform our vision for the future for our city. As we are more informed ourselves, we can encourage our political representatives to make these issues priorities in their campaigns, we can help them be more accountable to addressing these issues as our public representatives. Finally, we can continue to be an active part of the solution through our actions as engaged citizens and volunteers for our community.
~ Laurel Benson, President and CEO of Volunteer Calgary~
Volunteer Calgary encourages everyone who reads this blog to Exercise Their Right To Volunteer By Voting! Here in Calgary, learn more about the candidates and issues in our upcoming municipal election and be ready to vote your mind on October 18th ,2010!
For additional electoral info: