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Alberta Election: Time takes a toll on Calgary voter turnout

– with files and data from Alex Hamilton

Why is there historically lower voter turnout in some Calgary ridings than others?

That’s the question we set out to answer this week, now two weeks into the 2019 Alberta election campaign.  

The answer, it turns out, is quite complicated. More nuanced than we thought and definitely more complex than is given credit.

It’s simply not as easy as saying “get out and vote.”

We’ll tell you off the top that at the end of this piece there are no concrete answers; most of the information is anecdotal because it’s tough to pin down exactly “why” people don’t / won’t vote in any given locale.

The journey to uncovering answers provides insight rather than solutions and hopefully offers a leaping-off point for more discussion on how to increase participation from all communities in our democratic process.

The data

We wanted to dig into some data with this Alberta election, and voter turnout is always a lingering topic. Reporter Alex Hamilton started digging into and collating Calgary voter turnout data from the past three provincial elections.

Meanwhile, community leader Larry Leach, president of Crossroads Community Association and head of 12 Community Safety Initiative (12CSI) in east Calgary, made the pitch for some coverage on their series of four provincial election candidate forums, saying voter turnout is traditionally low in east Calgary and they wanted to examine the issue while building awareness.

We took that anecdotal information and compared it with the data.

Sure enough, we saw a pattern emerge.  

Calgary East, Calgary Greenway, Calgary Cross, Calgary Fort (now largely Calgary Peigan), Calgary McCall and even Calgary Buffalo had voter turnout in the low to mid-40 per cent in the last two provincial elections (2012, 2015).

When you compare it with ridings like Calgary Elbow, Calgary Shaw, Calgary Varsity, Calgary West, Calgary Hawkwood – you’re looking at a percentage difference of between 12 and 20 per cent turnout among voters.

The data continued to show this in the comparable 2008 ridings (many were altered between 2008 and 2019). In 2008, voter turnout in Calgary was disastrously low for a provincial election but the voter turnout disparities in these areas were still maintained.  

We also compared the provincial data against recent municipal elections and when the ridings were compared with the city’s wards, the data was confirmed.

Great. We had a starting set of data. That’s when we began asking – why?

The initial hypothesis we formed was framed around two factors that could be drawn from an examination of these areas: income and ethnicity/immigration.

These areas have a high ethnic diversity and tend to be lower income. In fact, Statistics Canada comparison of the high vs. low neighbourhoods in these areas has average household income disparity at 2 to 1, sometimes more.

That gave us a couple threads to pull on.  

(Note: Age comparison (which tends to have the biggest influence on voter turnout) was excluded because the differences in population age demographics, according to City of Calgary census data, were marginal in the overall data of these areas.)

The pursuit begins

We initially tabled voter turnout questions to University of Calgary political science professor, Dr. Anthony Sayers, who is also director of the Canadian Elections Database.

Honestly, this is when we knew a definitive answer might be elusive, if not indeterminable.

Sayers started by applauding the effort to use data during the election versus “much of the usual commentary.”

“That said, answers to questions such as yours are likely to be very difficult,” he wrote via email.

That’s when he listed off a string of potential variables: ‘newness’ of a riding; demographics (young vote less, new Canadians may vote less); election competitiveness – including in the riding; local issues; even the type of work a voter does and ability to get away to vote; access to vote information; desire to vote; education; leisure time; sense of efficacy (their vote will count), interest in politics, etc.

We asked specifically if there’s a correlation between lower income and higher income voting patterns.

“Yes, there is evidence over time of this. But as with all social and political realities, it is complex,” he said.

“Income may have a direct effect, but it is associated with other things.”

We didn’t directly ask about ethnicity, but he alluded to new Canadians and potential voting issues in overall voter turnout questions. We’ll examine how these two areas dovetail as our investigation unfolds.

Elections Canada did research on a decline in voter turnout in the 2000 federal election and examined areas similar to what Sayers mentioned above and ranked them in order of importance. Age was the number one overall factor on whether or not someone voted in their study. It also identified such factors as whether someone’s name was on the list of electors, and the length of time someone had lived in their community.

Similar research on voter participation in ethnic communities was published by Elections Canada in 2006. It does show some connection between ethnicity and lower voter turnout, but one of the primary factors in determining this was how long a person had lived in Canada.

The low vote ridings

Larry Leach is no stranger to politics. He’s led provincial candidate campaigns and even ran as a school trustee himself. He’s been at the doorsteps to see firsthand the hot-button issues, but also some of the voting barriers to residents in his area of east Calgary.

This year, 12CSI is hosting four candidate forums for the ridings of Calgary East, Calgary Klein, Calgary Peigan, and Calgary Cross. Leach said they’ve done these in the past for civic elections, and even produced how-to-vote videos in several different languages to break down some of the potential barriers.

“We worked the numbers after the civic election, and there was no measurable change. The only uptick in the voter turnout in our area was the uptick and voter turnout overall (across the city). The percentage was exactly the same,” Leach said.

“But we feel like need to c ontinue to do it. It’s important for residents to feel like they’re having an impact on their neighborhood and the electoral process is all part of that.”

He’d like to do further research into some of the challenges around voter turnout in these areas. Leach said all they have is anecdotal evidence: conversations with people and their perspectives on why they don’t vote.

Leach, like Sayers, said it’s likely a combination of things.

When he was a school trustee, he admitted that his target audience wasn’t parents. It was older people in the community.

“And a lot of that has to do with time. Parents are busy. They’re getting kids off to, you know, skating and all the different other activities that all of us are aware of as young parents,” he said.

Leach also acknowledged the specific areas that our initial data showed: ethnic makeup and lower income. He said there are inherent barriers that arise in those categories.

But he touched on an area that might be key in examining this issue from a different perspective: Time.

Especially time and its relationship with low income and ethnicity.

“Chronic Scarcity”

In his email signature, Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC) executive director Franco Savoia has this phrase: “Voting is a poverty reduction strategy.” VCC advocates for long-term strategies to reduce poverty in the city.

Savoia said that while he had no personal position on the Alberta NDP’s policy, he did point out measures such as the increased minimum wage and the boost in the child tax credit as measures that came about because voters chose this party.

That’s one barrier they’re trying to overcome in reaching out to the low-income clients and agencies they work with.

“They could actually influence the election in a big way, relative to the issues they’re facing,” said Savoia.

Again, while Savoia doesn’t have “hard data” on the barriers, he does know from working with low income, refugee and immigrant populations that just putting food on the table and taking care of their families requires immense effort.

“What happens for people that are working poor or lower, you’re living in chronic scarcity,” he said.

“It’s not that they don’t want to vote. It’s more that with all the things you’re trying to balance, maybe a second job and all, voting seems like, at best, a “nice-to. So, it just gets dropped off.”

Savoia said recent research examining how the brain prioritizes life activities also sheds a little light on how people personally ranking voting importance.

“If I’ve got food in the fridge, I mean life isn’t perfect, but it might give me the slack in my life to be able to say, ‘I’m going to get out to vote, I’m going to find out about the election.’”

Leach said he’s seen this in east Calgary communities. It’s where we start to see income and immigration collide in providing a better understanding of low voter turnout in certain Calgary ridings.

“Chances are, you’re not coming here because you’ve got a big job, and you’re trying to do better for yourself. And so, in order to do better for yourself, you’re working a lot of jobs and with kids – so it all works as a finite thing in a package,” he said.

“But being busy is part of the deal.”

Leach said it’s not necessarily about being too busy just to vote, but too busy to research candidates, find out the issues, or maybe even know that an election campaign is underway. This is where the components of the Elections Canada research start to emerge – the interest, discussion, civic duty and whether their vote matters.  

“If you knock on the door and ask if they’ll commit to voting, they may tell you they didn’t research the candidates, or they don’t have an opinion on which is best, Leach said.

“But if you dig deeper, they might not have the information because they have no time to access it.”

Time and time again

Colleen Huston (left) and Andrew Ng at their Apathy is Boring registration table. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Just after he turned 18, Andrew Ng went to vote in the 2004 election. He had his wisdom teeth pulled that morning. He had the time, even though he says he wasn’t that interested in politics.

Ng now works with the Calgary branch of Apathy is Boring, a national group focused on getting out the 18 to 30 vote during elections. Last week, he was at the Disability Action Hall at the Calgary Scope Society in Mayland Heights helping register voters for the Alberta Election.

He said during an outreach event in Marlborough, one of the areas where voter turnout is especially low, he asked some of the youth why they didn’t vote.

“And they said their parents don’t vote,” Ng recalled, then asking why.

“They said they just don’t feel like it. You don’t think it makes a difference.”

Colleen Huston, co-ordinator with Disability Action Hall, said many of the caregivers of their clientele were either of South Asian and African descent and they were able to reach them through this voter registration session.

“A lot of these workers here are working three part-time jobs and have no time off,” she said.

“They had temporary drivers licenses and asked ‘can I vote today?’ They have no time. No time.”

Ng agreed. He said if you look at the stereotypical demography of the east Calgary communities you likely draw the same conclusion: Time.

“They really don’t have time to vote. Especially if you’re working two or three jobs, going from one job to another, so your entire day is taken up. You can’t fit in anywhere in that 11 hours to go and vote, even though you’re legally obligated to have three hours to vote,” he said.

“Or maybe they don’t feel like they can take that time off, because you might not get paid for that time.”


Ng said his group is trying to reach into different areas, motivating youth to vote so they can start change the conversation early on – especially marginalized youth who are either Indigenous or homeless.

“And then we just try to talk to people who feel like voting, they don’t have the motivation to vote, either because they think it doesn’t matter to them, or they think that someone can else take care of the decision,” Ng said.

Access to information, access to politicians and making each step of the process more accessible is key, Ng said.  

Ng, like Savoia, said a lot of people just don’t know the impact they can actually have with their vote. He pointed to seven ridings in Calgary in the last election decided by razor thin margins.

Leach said they’re trying to impact that time commitment by making the information readily available to people in their communities. They recently delayed their newsletter that reaches 30,000 homes so they could include election information. They’re on social media. They’re once again creating a presentation on how to vote – from registration right through to casting the ballot.

“It’s all about us putting that information out there and trying to make it accessible. But at the end of the day, right now, where we’re positioned, people gotta care,” said Leach.

Savoia and the others all agreed one recent Elections Alberta measure will help improve overall voter turnout and once again break down that time barrier.

The Vote Anywhere program during the advanced vote allows people to cast a vote in their riding from anywhere in Alberta. Even as people move around in their busy day, they can make a convenient stop at a nearby polling station and mark their ballot.

Savoia also said that they’re also trying to create a trickle-down effect by educating their staff and the agencies they work with to help assist their respective clientele in understanding the electoral process. They trying to get small wins like informing them of the vote dates, how to register, dates for advanced polls and where to find information.

He said it’s almost a chicken-and-egg situation. People need to free up time to educate themselves and the go and vote for candidates and parties that might influence the issues they’re facing, but while they’re facing these issues they can’t find the time to do it.

“It’s a real catch-22. Because when you’re struggling with scarcity in your life, it’s tough to make time. But more importantly, make it a priority to do it.”

Is there a conclusion?

Clearly time is an issue.

We set out to see if the immediate hypothesis of income and ethnic makeup had a substantial impact on why these Calgary ridings had perennially lower voter turnout than others.

It does, but not in the way one might think. It’s not just about money or just about being an immigrant or refugee. Leach said in our interview that some of the most politically-engaged people he’s worked with come from Calgary’s different ethnic communities. They’re passionate about it.

So, while there may not be a direct correlation between low income, immigrants and voter turnout, some of the challenges that emerge from these situations DO create that one barrier that seemingly has the biggest impact on preventing people from re-prioritizing participation in the democratic process: Time.

Savoia said it’s incumbent upon all Albertans to reach out and see if they can help draw one person out to see that it is worth the time. Talk to a neighbour, a friend, a family member to show them how to navigate the process and find the information that breaks down the other barriers.

The Elections Canada data outlines the a primary areas that affect voter turnout, and Sayers reiterated many of these areas.

It seems though that many people aren’t able to reach the level where they have these feelings because they don’t have the time to get engaged in the process at all.

Albertans can vote in the advance polls April 9 to 13 – anywhere in the province. Alberta’s election day is April 16. For full information visit elections.ab.ca.