Voter turnout in District of North Vancouver elections has ranged between 17% and 36% since 1996. I don’t know if it was any higher prior to that. Though the problem is common across Canadian municipalities (a 2018 study showed the average to be 36%), voter turnout in the DNV appears to be low even by that low benchmark.

Some might complain that this means North Vancouverites lack a sense of civic duty. But to me, that’s like the host of a festival that has low turnout saying that it’s because the locals lack community pride. More fundamental questions to ask would be, “is this event appealing to the public?” or “is the admission fee I’m charging too high?”

To apply this analogy to municipal elections, let’s take the second question first. In the case of voting, there is a cost, albeit a non-monetary one. The cost is the time of the voter. To make an uneducated vote, the cost in time isn’t much. The voter could just vote for the candidates who are most physically attractive, or whose names they’ve heard/seen most often. However, to get even a basic understanding of where each of the many candidates for mayor, council and trustee stand on the various issues is an investment of at least a few hours. This is especially true in the DNV where we don’t typically have Elector Organizations (aka political parties) that aid voters in knowing where candidates sit on the political spectrum.

In a sense, citizens may be making a rational choice to not vote. They weigh the time it might take for them to weigh the options and cast a ballot against the potential benefit they might receive from the outcome. Knowing that their vote will be just one in tens of thousands, and that the chance that their vote will be the decisive one in any race very small, they may conclude that it’s a waste of time.

Voters may also fall prey to the general apathy that comes from thinking, “no matter who gets elected, things never change.” Depending on what voters focus on, this could appear to be true, even though it isn’t. We exist in a political system and culture that shies away from radical change, and it can be hard to see incremental changes as they occur over a long period.

However, I believe this type of apathy stems from a deeper problem: even in local governance, citizens do not feel engaged. And you can’t really blame them. Casting a ballot once every 4 years doesn’t amount to meaningful participation in democracy in my mind. Though there are opportunities between elections for citizens to have a voice in governance (sitting on District committees, speaking at Council meetings, or participating in public hearings), the proportion of citizens who choose to seek out these opportunities is quite small.

One problem with the opportunities mentioned above is that they amount only to consultation. In other words, after hearing citizens’ input at a hearing, the District is typically not bound to follow the wishes of the citizens in any clear or quantifiable way. Of course, if there is a loud and unified chorus from citizens on any major issue, elected officials would be foolish to ignore it, particularly if they plan on running again. But most issues are not so cut and dried, and in the absence of strong political winds pushing in one direction, the government will decide based on other factors.

One of the most significant of those is special interest pressure. Small, well-organized and funded groups, be they business interests or non-profit advocacy groups, have the time and resources to influence governance decisions. This gives them a large advantage over the typical citizen who is busy with earning a living and caring for a family and has little time to be involved in political processes. The larger government grows, the more acute this problem becomes. More government initiatives in more domains with larger budgets attached mean more incentives for special interest groups to peddle influence. The best way to combat this problem is to reduce the size and scope of government. Scaling back the number of social/cultural initiatives and re-focussing municipal governance on providing essential infrastructure would certainly help.

We should also ask whether there may be better ways of engaging citizens. Democracy has taken many different forms over human history, and there’s no reason to think we’ve perfected it. From the past, w can look to more direct, localized models of participation. The existing network of Community Associations (CA’s) we have in North Van provide a potential basis for this. In my campaign, I’ve been putting forward ideas for greater involvement of the CA’s in matters like approving coach house permit applications, or determining what kind of Community Amenity Contributions developers provide. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have implemented a system of Neighborhood Councils that have local governance mandates and direct lines of communication with the City government. Edmonton has an extensive network of Community Leagues, and the City has partnered with them to provide training and resources to League leaders on how better to engage residents in urban planning and development processes. Other cities, like Toronto, have a ward system to provide more localized representation on Council. Though such systems of decentralized governance make the most sense for large cities, there’s no reason they can’t be adopted by smaller ones. For example, Aurora, Ontario (pop. 62,000) recently established a ward system.

Bringing decision-making closer to the level of the citizen could go a long way toward alleviating voter apathy. Civic engagement is like a muscle; it needs regular exercise to have any strength. If North Vancouver residents were active members in Community Associations, Parent Advisory Committees, or other local civic associations, more of them would care and be knowledgeable about local issues to vote in municipal elections, or be otherwise involved. Like the City of Edmonton has done with its training initiative, the DNV could do more to support Community Associations. At the very least, the DNV could list the CA’s on their website, and provide links to the CA’s pages so that more residents know of their existence! If an appetite among CA’s for a larger role in municipal decision-making, there are great opportunities to replace aspects of our antiquated zoning system with more flexible decision-making by neighbourhood residents find the right balance between preservation of neighbourhood character and evolution towards a 21st-century vision of community.

Clayton Welwood

Candidate for DNV Council

Clayton is running for District of North Vancouver Council in 2022. He holds a BA in International Development from Trent University, and works as a project manager in the construction industry.