Residents of Sturgeon County, Morinville and Legal are about to OD on democracy. The electorate hits the polls Oct. 16 to vote for their municipal politicians. Then, exactly one week later, on Oct. 23, they head back to the polls to elect their member of Parliament.
The back-to-back ballot casting is the fault of the federal government, which didn’t bother to consider (or, perhaps, care) that Alberta is holding its municipal elections in October. The poor timing is bound to cause voter fatigue, if not down-right voter confusion.
The federal byelection is needed because Rona Ambrose, the former Conservative interim leader and member of Parliament for Sturgeon River-Parkland, stepped down in July. The federal byelection news came just before Nomination Day, Sept. 18, the deadline for Alberta municipal candidates to throw their hats in the ring. That is also the date that election signs for municipal candidates were popping up at many locations in the region.
The overlap in elections is unnecessary. The date of the Alberta municipal election has been set for four years. The deadline for setting a date for the Sturgeon River-Parkland byelection was not until December of this year. The byelection didn’t have to happen in October.
Residents can expect campaign signs for all the different races running side–by–side. There are two sets of requirements for voting, and two sets of advance polls. All of this contributes to voter confusion, which could mean more people don’t even bother to vote.
The byelection date also doesn’t give parties a lot of time to campaign, which will make it difficult for candidates to reach voters who are already caught up in the municipal campaign.
For democracy to work, voters need to be informed. Citizens already have a heavy load as they try to get up to speed on the best candidates for municipal councils and school boards. Having an overlapping federal race in a short campaign period reduces the chances of citizens knowing where the candidates stand on issues.
St. Albert MP Michael Cooper says the overlapping elections create confusion. He said it is already difficult to get voters to come out to byelections, and this could put a further damper on voter turnout.
Cooper is right to be concerned. Historically, voter turnout at byelections is already low. Fewer than 16 per cent of eligible voters turned out to two Alberta byelections in 2014 in the ridings of Fort McMurray-Athabasca and McLeod, the lowest in modern Canadian history. That compares to federal election turnouts that typically draw more than 60 per cent of voters.
The person elected in Sturgeon River-Parkland will represent the area for the next two years in Parliament. It is important that the person chosen be representative of the electorate at large.
Overlapping a federal byelection on top of a municipal election is poor planning. It doesn’t serve voters, it doesn’t serve candidates and it doesn’t serve democracy.