Apathy or administration? Making sense of plunging voter turnout in the Northwest Territories

It’s pretty easy to look at the raw voter turnout numbers from the Northwest Territories general election and get depressed.

Though figures varied widely riding by riding, from an anemic 25 per cent in Kam Lake to 74 per cent in Nunakput, under 44 per cent of listed electors in the territory cast ballots. Overall, turnout has been in freefall since the post-division election of 1999, falling below half for the first time in 2011.

Is there blame to be assigned here? Nicole Latour, the territory’s chief electoral officer, sounded a little tired of being asked how responsible Elections NWT is for coaxing people out to the polls.

Latour said Elections NWT is only responsible for administering the Elections Act and setting out the infrastructure for the election itself. They can advertise, remove barriers to voting, add more advance polls and so on, but the bottom line is that voting is voluntary.

“People are invited, and whether they choose to come or not is not something we can control,” she said.

Lists need updating: candidate

But just how much is turnout actually a problem? On Twitter, Frame Lake candidate David Wasylciw noted that voters lists, particularly in Yellowknife, include all kinds of names of people who moved away years ago.

That said, no matter the problems of the lists, turnout is still quite low,” he told me later. “When only 500 to 600 ballots are cast in ridings with many more people, it’s a problem.”

We don’t go just tossing people off the list.

Latour said the move to permanent electors lists, as is done now in most provinces, can create the look of lower turnout, because the database draws names and addresses from multiple government sources and because Elections NWT would rather err on the side of enfranchising people.

“We don’t go just tossing people off the list,” she said.

‘Not a complacency issue’

Latour also noted that despite the low turnout, voters weren’t exactly complacent. After all, there are 11 new faces out of 19 in the next Legislative Assembly.

Eight incumbents lost their seats, including Dave Ramsay, who once won Kam Lake with 80 per cent of the vote. This time, Ramsay was up against a motivated challenger in Kieron Testart who had a detailed platform and a well-organized campaign in a head-to-head race with no vote splitting.

Indeed, low turnout played into the strategy of some of the insurgent campaigns. Nigit’stil Norbert, who finished second to Bob McLeod in Yellowknife South, realized early on in her campaign that her core supporters were politically engaged and virtually guaranteed to vote. That’s when she stepped up door-knocking to introduce herself to other voters.

Yellowknife’s highly transient population also plays a role. Norbert said she encountered a lot of potential voters who had not been around for the last four to eight years.

“I wouldn’t say that the people didn’t care, I never got that sense, but what I did experience were people who were so busy in their own lives, just trying to make ends meet,” she said.

It can also be tough to divine clear patterns. In Nunakput, voter turnout spiked 18 percentage points from 2011 to the highest in the territory at 74 per cent. Incumbent Jackie Jacobson lost to Herb Nakimayak by four votes (assuming the result survives a recount). Yellowknife North, with four competitive candidates gunning for an open seat, saw pretty good turnout by city standards at 44 per cent. Meanwhile, another tight four-way race in Frame Lake drew just 28 per cent.

System needs tweaking

Still, nobody should be thrilled about the NWT’s voter turnout this time around. It’s tempting to chalk up the rampant lethargy to the plodding, heavily bureaucratic style of government that predominates in the territory.

Norbert said people don’t vote when they feel the system ignores them. “If the people can’t see themselves as being integral to the process, then most likely they will not want to be involved in the process at all,” she said.

Wasylciw said there needs to be discussion about tweaks to the first-past-the-post system, like ranked ballots of electing MLAs at large in bigger communities like Yellowknife, Inuvik, and Hay River.

If the new MLAs feel their mandate is truly one of change, they’re best advised to start immediately on the tough, nitty-gritty work that will be required to reform the territory’s democratic institutions before the system swallows them whole. Systems tend to do that.◉

Photo credit: istockphoto/Niyazz


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