Sunday, January 05, 2014

Rocking the Vote in Chilliwack

If you have been on Twitter and following the #chilliwack or the #SD33Votes hashtags you may have noticed a few - or more - tweets about the voter turnout issue in our little town city. Really the whole voter turnout thing is a bit of an embarrassment. For oh so many reasons, some known, some not, many of us just don't vote. In response to seeing that as a problem, a few people, myself included, have been mulling, tweeting and asking questions about "why" we don't vote.

Looking back

In November of 2011, just after our last municipal election I asked a few (93) folks in Chilliwack for their ideas about the so called voter apathy problem in the Wack. I sent out a Thoughtstream asking six questions:

 Q1: If you voted, what was it that motivated you to vote in the recent municipal election? If you didn’t vote what stopped you?

Q2: Where did you get information about the candidates and about the election in general?

 Q3: What are your ideas about why Chilliwack voter turnout is so low?

 Q4: What might this council do to increase community engagement over the next 3 years with the goal of increasing voter turnout?

Q5: What do you think the BIG issues are now and/or will be over the next three years?

Q6: Pretend its 3 years from now. What would you like to be able to say truthfully about your city and how it’s run? 

31 people responded. Not a bad response rate for an unsolicited process. The responses themselves were insightful, personal and I think provide a glimpse into some of the underlying rationalizations we all make for not doing "stuff" like voting. If you're interested in the responses you can access them via this public dropbox link.

Looking forward

Rolling forward a few years and here we are just after a by-election that garnered an abysmal level of attention from eligible voters and heading into our next municipal election. What to do, what to do?

If you don't know what to do - ask more questions I say. Following a Twitter chat with Chilliwack councilperson @jasonlum and frequent Chilliwack issues tweeter @richardajabu I decided to ask Chilliwack Twitter folks why they didn't vote. Again not a massive response - seriously was not expecting more than a dozen or so responses - but people did respond and they responded honestly (I can only assume that as there was zero pay value in being dishonest) and again provided a few more inklings into Chilliwack citizen's political psyche.

Here is a link to an online web report of the results. And here is a .pdf version of the same report.

Over 200 people who clicked the link to view the ideas submitted in response to the fill in the blank question. Of those 27 people assigned stars to indicate what we might focus our time and energy on if we want to engage more people in our local democratic processes.

The top vote getting responses were:

  • I didn't have enough information about the candidates

  • I wasn't interested 

  • There was a lack of credibility/confidence in the process, not enough done to send a message of importance (This response received the highest rating when the votes were averaged. That can suggest that a few folks rated this very highly)

  • I didn't know about the election, election date, location of polling stations or voting boundaries

What I've learned so far

What I have learned so far is that there hasn't been much of a change since the last time we asked this question in Chilliwack. I also learned that there are some very passionate and invested people in Chilliwack willing to get involved and work towards co-creating a more engaged community.

I think social media was a good place to start. People on Twitter who follow any of the hashtags related to chilliwack #chilliwack #SD33 #SD33Votes for example are an engaged group. In any research you want to ask those people first. Do I think this would have been more representative if other methods were used to pose the question to a more diverse group - absolutely.

How this could have been better?

Ideally this kind of question would go out to multiple mailing lists - city, local service groups, the school district, chamber of commerce for example and also be available in paper format to non profit groups to ask their clients for input. Although I'm not sure we would get radically different responses. There is always a risk of asking questions as a way of avoiding having to actually do something. Asking question, "why" questions should just light the fuse, get things started, not be the place we come to rest.

Other ways to find out more and at the same time promote the idea of civic engagement would be to have information and motivators at community events like Party in the Park for example. For any of that to happen there has to be champions of the idea and support by local leadership. By leadership I don't mean just City Hall. Local leaders in education, First Nations, business, sports leagues and non-profits could help promote the idea of civic engagement and the behaviour of voting in local elections. All of these groups have an inherent reliance on local government in one way or another.

The City could play a critical role in this. They might (ought to in my opinion) be the convenors of the conversation. They are in a unique position to hold the space and provide the invitation to come together as a community to solve this community owned problem. The challenge for them is to ensure the process is open, inclusive and that all of the unique voices in our community are included in defining the problem and finding the solutions. 

What's next? 

Jason Lum has suggested a think tank type of group and has enlisted at least one educator who has in turn found a group of youth that want get involved. My hope is that this is just the beginning and the vision of a more engaged community gains traction. Communities that have engaged citizens and that are connected by a shared vision are healthier and better equipped to deal with both success and disaster. Isn't that what we want as a community?

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