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Low Calgary Olympic plebiscite turnout makes slim win ‘dicey’, says city pollster

Should turnout for the upcoming Calgary Olympic plebiscite be under 30 per cent, it presents political problems should councillors decide to forge ahead with a slim majority, says a city public opinion researcher.

But the prospect of a weak turnout is something Calgary voter Joe Henschel is pushing for. Henschel attended the City of Calgary open house at the Cardel Rec South last week looking for more information on the city’s Olympic bid.

Even as he gathers information on what’s in it for his family, Henschel said his mind’s virtually made up.

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“I think by me not voting and keeping the participation rate low, it will send a message the those who vote one way or another that it doesn’t represent the majority of Calgarians. In fact, it will only be a small slice of Calgarians,” Henschel said, adding that he believes a low turnout would render the result statistically irrelevant.

“In this, when you look at plebiscites, you can actually make a pretty big statement by keeping away and keeping the plebiscite (turnout) low.”

Marc Henry, president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs, said plebiscites in between municipal elections typically have dismal turnout.

“I’ll be surprised if it breaks 30 (per cent),” Henry said.

In 2003, Vancouver did have a plebiscite in a non-election year (their municipal election was in 2002) and it rung up a 46 per cent voter turnout with nearly 135,000 voters. The yes side won 64 to 36 per cent.

In his book on the Vancouver Olympics, John Furlong, who headed the Vancouver Olympic Committee, said that although that result wasn’t a landslide, it was enough to move ahead.

That’s where it gets complicated, Henry said.

“The challenge is going to be – and it’s more on the yes side than it is on the no side – if the no side gets 50 per cent plus one they win, it’s over,” Henry said.

“But if the yes side gets 50 per cent plus 1 and it’s a 30 per cent turnout, then it gets a little dicey.”

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Calgary had huge voter turnout in last October’s municipal election, with 58.1 per cent of voters marking their ‘X’. That was roughly 387,500 voters. So, there’s between 500,000 and 600,000 eligible voters for the plebiscite.

Henry said if there’s less than 30 per cent turn out, then the result needs to be closer to 60 per cent in favour for it to be politically prudent to move ahead with a Winter Olympic bid.

“I think the yes side, realistically to move forward, at least to have fewer hiccups it’s going to need over 60 per cent,” he said.
“It’s very risky for any member of council, if it’s 55 per cent in favour and it’s a 30 per cent turnout and they decide to move forward.”

Henschel feels that if fewer than 250,000 of his fellow citizens vote, politicians should take notice.

“I think the participation rate, or lackthereof, will send a bigger statement,” he said.

In the end, Henry said it will come down to which side is more enthusiastic and motivated to get voters out.

Polling his firm did a little over a month ago showed a 50 / 50 split when asked when or not they were in favour of hosting the Olympics. That swung to a no vote by 10 points when asked how they would vote in the actual plebiscite.

“It really boils down to enthusiasm,” Henry said.

“And when you’re talking about plebiscite – it’s the get-out-the-vote that’s going to have a big impact on the outcome.”

He said the no side’s attracting older voters, ones typically more motivated to get out and cast their ballot. The yes side’s got more money, better organization, so they should be able to get their vote out.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out,” he said.