Voter turnout could top 40 per cent: Lightbody

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Voter turnout in St. Albert may be higher than normal this month.

With plebiscite questions on the ballot, no mayoral incumbent and the most council candidates (25) running since St. Albert became a city, this year’s municipal election has factors that set it apart from past city council elections.

But what do those factors mean for the election landscape, and how might they impact the results?

Jim Lightbody, a political science professor with the University of Alberta who specializes in municipal politics, says voter turnout might see an upward swing this election season.

“A lot of the (factors) in St. Albert indicate a reasonably healthy turnout. That would be about 40 per cent, I think,” he said.

“That would be a good turnout. For any city in Canada, a turnout of 35 per cent is good.”

The 2013 general election saw a voter turnout of 38.13 per cent, while in 2010 the turnout was 34.16 per cent. The 2007 general election saw a voter turnout of 34.49 per cent and in 2004 – an election that saw five candidates vying for mayor – voter turnout topped out at 46.13 per cent.

Mayoral races often draw the most crowds to polling stations, especially when no incumbent is running, Lightbody says – as is the case this year with three candidates vying for the mayor’s chair.

In contrast, the number of candidates running for councillor seats may not impact voter turnout.

“A competitive mayoralty race absolutely increases interest, particularly where the candidates have a different worldview,” he said.

“When you have a division over city-wide issues – and there has to be a wide range, you have to have a more expansive, progressive kind of candidate and a more conservative, consolidation, keep-our-gains, basic-services kind of person – if that’s what you have, then chances are there will be a good turnout.”

As far as ballot questions go, Lightbody says controversy can be difficult to gauge where plebiscites are concerned, and candidates may put more emphasis on their positions than voters.

“Do voters really care deeply? … You can’t just say, ‘I’m for the plebiscite, I’m against,’ and have two ideological worldviews,” he said.

Another factor that influences voters is whether incumbent councillors are running. In St. Albert, three incumbents are aiming to reclaim their council seats.

Lightbody says there’s usually an 85 to 90 per cent chance of incumbents being re-elected. The wild card, he says, is whether voters decide to turf all incumbents.

“When people decide to change, they change everything,” he said.

“But we start with the assumption that everyone who is on council will be re-elected.”

Aside from incumbents, general trends don’t bode well for candidates toward the bottom of the ballot, although there are some exceptions.

“People at the front end of the alphabet have a tremendous advantage in that kind of election,” Lightbody said.

That’s because voters often look for names they recognize as they go down the list, instead of considering each name separately.

But in the end, candidates should trust the voters. Outlying factors aside, voters tend to cast their ballots in favour of candidates rather than against them, Lightbody says.

“People like to vote for something. Governments lose because they run out of new ideas,” he said.

“I think the discerning voter who gets to the polling station … will be looking for something to vote for. But probably they’ll find it in the list before they get to the letter M.”

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