By Jennifer Smith
A town in B.C. is facing significant humiliation in the name of combating voter apathy.
Either the residents of Smithers, or those of Tofino, will soon be singing the praises, quite literally, of the other community, lauding its democratic spirit as punishment for losing a bet to raise voter turnout.
The wager got started on Facebook as Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach announced he would dedicate his time to raising participation in the 2014 municipal election as he is not facing any challengers and will be acclaimed for the job.
“History has shown, whenever the mayor is acclaimed, voter turnout tends to be lower,” Bachrach explained.
“…We have both been acclaimed, so it’s a bit of a level playing field. I think she was the one who said, ‘Do you want to make a bet?’ And I agreed to it and then came up with the prize.”
Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne is a friend of Bachrach’s and has apparently agreed to his terms: The mayor must write the song.
The two communities are quite small—Tofino has an estimated 1,292 eligible voters to the 3,741in Smithers—and both share an unusually high voter turnout—56 per cent in Tofino and 66 per cent in Smithers.
Voter turnout in municipal elections has long been a significant issue in the province, thus their wager is generating significant buzz.
The provincial average of eligible voters who cast a ballot in 2011 was closer to 30 per cent, with Kelowna just over that number at 33 per cent.
Running as a council candidate here in Kelowna, local singer-songwriter Ryan Donn, who wrote Kelowna’s centennial song, said his advice is to find the emotion in the song.
“I always go to the chorus, the hook,” he said. “Songs are about emotion, right, so it’s how do you get emotion into a topic that isn’t emotional?”
Mayoral candidate Sharon Shepherd may have an answer.
Voter apathy, or the challenge of voting, as she prefers to call it, has been a personal project for her for many years.
During her tenure as a Kelowna city councillor she found a program in Ontario, which offered youth an opportunity to vote on three key projects and then watch the outcome. Not only did it prime the next generation of voters, but the parents of the youth, by proxy, turned out in higher numbers to vote themselves.
Shepherd tried to generate traction to pilot the idea in Kelowna, but failed to get others onside. She believes municipal elections do not draw high voter turnout because the number of candidates is too overwhelming.
Today, Shepherd advocates for a partial ward system in which residents can vote for councillors in their neighbourhoods, thus making it easier to get to know the candidates involved.
In the last election she met one woman who was out to all of the forums, making a list of her selections, to distribute to friends and family who didn’t have the time to do their due diligence.
“It’s a challenge for people,” she said.
“People have to have the ability to get to know the candidates.”
The man slated as her key challenger in this year’s election, Colin Basran, said he too is very concerned about voter apathy and is hoping his age will help draw more eligible voters to the ballot box.
While he’s very keen to get in front of the older demographic who typically vote, he has had new voters approach him to say they would be participating for the first time because there is someone who represents their demographic running in the race.
Tofino and Smithers will vie for the percentage of improvement, with Bachrach saying he’s confident the great musicians who live in his area, like Latin Grammy award winner Alex Cuba, will have his back should his efforts fail.