By Christopher Yip
There were optimistic expectations for a high voter turnout in last Wednesday’s mayoral election. The number of candidates gave Reginans a wide spectrum to choose from, and because of their diversity some speculated a large increase in voter participation from the 25 per cent seen in the 2009 municipal election. Despite this, however, only 33 per cent of voters went to the polls last week.
Why was there such a small voter turnout this year? Who are the Reginans who chose not to vote? One might think the answer lies with new Canadian citizens – immigrants moving here from outside of Regina. But is that assumption grounded in reality?
There is no doubt that there are many brand-new voters in the Queen City. “Saskatchewan is still growing fast, with immigrants making up virtually all of the people who moved to the province in the first three months of the year,” said a recent Statistics Canada report.
Saskatchewan grew by 5000 people in the first quarter of 2012, adding to a boost of nearly 20 000 people between 2011 and 2012. This exponential growth is the most the province has seen in the last eighty years.
Some might believe that immigrants are growing the population but staying away from political involvement. While it is plain to see the increase in immigrants moving to Saskatchewan and locally in Regina, this does not mean that the immigrant population was apathetic in the election.
In their paper “Social capital and voting participation of immigrants and minorities in Canada,” Pieter Bevelander and Ravi Pendakur examined voting behaviour in provincial and federal elections. The two professors studied the results of the 2002 edition of the Equality Security Community survey – which records personal characteristics like age, education, political awareness, and ethnicity – and compared the likelihood of individuals to vote. Their findings revealed that, on the list of factors effecting how a person votes, newness to the country was one of the least consequential.
“The impact of immigration and ethnicity is largely overridden,” the authors wrote. Research showed that, although there were differences in voting probability between immigrant cultures, on average minorities had the same odds of voting as British origin respondents.
“Immigrant status does not appear to make a huge difference in the probability of voting. About 80 per cent of the Canadian-born population and immigrants who arrived after the age of 15 said they voted in the last federal election,” they wrote.
The top factors that affected a person’s probability of voting were their age, their level of education, and their civic engagement prior to election time. Engagement in particular was key to voter participation. A curious pattern in the study showed that visible minorities who watched and read the news in their language of origin were more engaged than the minorities who experienced the news in the majority language.
Interestingly, Bevelander and Pendakur found that a “sense of belonging” in Canada had a negative impact on provincial voting. Does this hint at a complacency born of comfort? The voter apathy that arose from this past civic election, then, may be rooted not in disregard for politics by newcomers but indifference by citizens who have lived here so long they have stopped caring.
For immigrants moving to Regina, it may take months or even years before they can say with confidence it is their new home. Some new Canadians like Joan Ting jumped at the chance to be part of their civic community, as soon as they have fulfilled the requirement of living in Saskatchewan for six months.
“We see the difference. You can see during the election time, people listen,” Ting said, participating in what would be her first municipal election.
“If you want to say something, or to let the authority know what you’re thinking, I think the election is important.”