Tuesday’s by-elections were remarkable for one key factor – rampant apathy. It was fitting that the by-elections took place on Groundhog Day – the voters were underground.
Compared to the turnout in the preceding general election, both Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver Mount Pleasant had the lowest turnouts of any BC by-election since 2004.
In both ridings, less than half that voted in 2013 showed up to vote in the by-election. In Coquitlam it was 39%, in Mt. Pleasant 41%. That’s not 39% turnout, that’s 39% of the turnout of the last election so the overall turnout was barely 20%.
Compare that to turnouts in other by-elections, again, comparing to the previous election:
- Vancouver Fairview (2008): 44%
- Vancouver Burrard (2008): 49%
- Port Moody-Coquitlam (2012): 60%
- Vancouver Pt. Grey (2011): 70%
- Surrey-Panorama (2004): 77%
- Westside-Kelowna (2013): 77%
- Chilliwack-Hope (2012): 85%
Voters, especially BC Liberal voters, just didn’t seem motivated to vote. Why? There was not a lot of media attention and there was not a lot at stake – the government is not going to fall. It is not unlike the 2008 by-elections where there was not a lot driving the public debate and thus turnout was low. I lived through the 2012 by-elections, which were critical in terms of clarifying the free enterprise option for the 2013 election. As poorly as the BC Liberals fared relative to the preceding election, they fared well enough to survive another day and helped to ultimately resolve matters with many potential BC Conservative voters.
Say, what do Jenn McGinn, Gwen O’Mahoney, and Joe Trasolini have in common? They were NDP MLAs elected in by-elections one year prior to a general election. In all three cases, they were defeated in the general election. When turnout returned to its usual levels, BC Liberals prevailed at the polls. That’s not to assume it will happen in 2017 in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, but it will be a much different fight with many more voters voting.
Let’s take a closer look at the by-election results in Coquitlam:
In 2013, the BC Liberals had 49.9% of the vote and the NDP 37.4% – a 12.5% spread.
In the by-election, The NDP won 3,562 votes (46%). In 2013, their candidate received 7,315 votes, so the by-election candidate scored about half as many votes.
Of course, the BC Liberal dropped further, from 9,766 votes to 2,936 votes (38% of the popular vote).
Compared to 2012 by-election in the neighbouring Port Moody-Coquitlam riding, the BC Liberals did much better.
In 2012, the BC Liberals dropped from 52% to 30% while the NDP gained from 40% to 54%. The BC Libs dropped 22% and the NDP gained 14%. In this week’s by-election, the swing was less – the BC Libs dropped 11% and the NDP gained 9%.
As mentioned, the turnout in Mt. Pleasant was also very low with the NDP losing market share dropping about 5 points while the BC Liberals dropped further by about 8 points. The Greens gained at both party’s expense.
What does it all mean? By-elections are a tough place to turn out voters and BC’s history shows that Opposition parties usually prevail. The last time a government MLA won a by-election – who was not the Premier of BC – was 1981 in Kamloops.
When stacked against the by-elections of 2012, the government fared much better in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain.
Congratulations to the NDP and the newly elected MLAs. A win is a win, no matter how you slice it. See you in 2017.