Elections are decided by the people who actually show up to vote.
It may be a cliché of political strategy, but it’s true. Especially for the upcoming federal and municipal elections in the Yukon. The new and highly transmissible Delta variant has arrived in the territory and people will be thinking twice about standing in voting lines with possibly unvaccinated fellow citizens.
Whitehorse municipal elections are a classic example of the importance of voter turnout. In 2018, the capital city had 26,733 inhabitants. The winning candidate for mayor won with votes from 2,933 or 11 per cent of them.
In terms of eligible voters, the winner was picked by 14 per cent of them, assuming the city’s mix of people 18 years and older was the same as Canada’s overall.
In the 2018 election, there were three candidates who garnered more than 1,000 votes. If we end up with four or more competitive candidates in the election coming this October, the winner could be claiming a mandate from the people on election night television with as few as 10 per cent of eligible voters behind them.
In this sense, the candidate’s objective is not to win the support of the majority of citizens. It’s to convince and cajole a much smaller fraction of them to turn up and actually vote.
There have been sea cans of political science studies written about this. One key effect is that it tends to give more influence to the kinds of people who tend to vote. This generally means the wealthier, older and better educated. In many parts of North America, minorities tend to have lower turnout rates.
Politicians often publicly deplore low voter turnout rates. Yet we continue to have plenty of rules and customs that tend to keep voter numbers down. We don’t let people under 18 years of age vote, even though they can drive and are considered responsible enough to make their own life-altering medical decisions. Yukon lawmakers have not passed mandatory voting rules like in Australia. Nor can Yukoners ask to have a convenient mail-in ballot sent automatically to them every election, as they do in Washington State.
Now, COVID-19 has made people less keen to vote in-person with strangers, as was widely observed in the American presidential election in 2020. In the April 2021 COVID-era territorial election, the percentage of the total population who voted went down to 44 per cent from 50 per cent in 2016 (I’m using total population who voted rather than eligible voters since changes to how the voting list was maintained make the official turnout statistics hard to compare).
Things have changed even since April. The week before that election, we had zero active cases. Now we have dozens, including a serious outbreak in Ross River and—critically—the highly contagious Delta variant has arrived in the Yukon. Indeed, news of Delta’s arrival coincided with the federal candidates heading out to campaign. With Delta’s transmissibility estimated at between two- and three-times that of the original Wuhan wild type, and the newspapers full of stories about its ability to infect even the fully vaccinated, citizens will be leery of crowding into poorly ventilated voting halls or attending campaign events. Partisans may be reluctant to volunteer at an election-day phone bank or attend an in-person debate to cheer for their candidate. Door-to-door canvassers will be as welcome as a marten in the cabin pantry.
We can only wonder how this will affect turnout for various candidates and the ultimate result of the vote.
We know turnout can be critically different for different candidates, especially in the Yukon where the winning margin can be a handful of votes. In the Yukon’s 2011 federal race, Larry Bagnell lost to Ryan Leef by 132 votes. There were 16,124 votes cast from 68 per cent of eligible voters. In the next election, more than 4,000 additional people voted for a turnout of 78 per cent. This was a key part of Larry Bagnell retaking the seat. He must have captured a big share of the additional turnout, since his vote tally went from 5,290 in 2011 to 10,887 in 2015.
The pandemic amplifies the advantages enjoyed by federal and municipal candidates with strong digital capabilities, detailed voter databases and established volunteer teams who know each other well enough to work effectively together remotely. The candidate with the home-made webpage, new copy of Facebook Marketing for Dummies and a pile of sticky notes with voter phone numbers will struggle to compete.
It also gives advantages to federal candidates whose national parties have well-funded digital operations. They will be putting enormous resources into social media to track you and nudge your behaviour. This includes behavioural marketing techniques to influence who you vote for and, if they think you will vote for them, whether you get up off the couch to go to the polling station.
But this time the usual get-out-the-vote tactics may not be enough to convince voters to risk a Delta infection at the polling station. The most successful candidates will have something else: a convincing commitment to listen to constituents and work hard for them. One of the secrets of Larry Bagnell’s first election win was the number of non-political Yukoners who turned out to vote for him because they had seen him working in one of his many community volunteer roles.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.