Is it possible to turn people on to municipal elections?
Port Moody certainly hopes so.
The city has posted gains in voter turnout in the last three civic elections - a rarity among government institutions - but councillors want to do even more to boost poll numbers with an awareness campaign and by making it easier for voters to get details on who's running.
Voter apathy at the municipal level is high and turnout is typically less than 30% for municipal elections. However, PoMo is working on an engagement plan that would make it easier for candidates to get their profiles online on the city's website and in taxpayers' hands. On Tuesday, councillors also approved plans to erect get out and vote signs promoting the Nov. 15 election and intend to mail out a detailed Election Awareness card to voters.
The program doesn't come without a cost, however. A report to Tuesday's council meeting noted that staff time, materials and signage will cost the city about $10,000, with candidates shelling out an additional $600 apiece for a bulk mail out.
But that investment may be worth it if more people are engaged and fewer sit out on election day, said mayor Mike Clay.
"Part of the program was to raise community awareness that we are having an election and to put candidates on an equal footing," he said.
Perhaps even more could be done, the mayor speculated, to attract younger voters, who typically stay away from municipal polls.
Turns out he's not alone in his concern.
Columbia Institute researcher Norman Gludovatz said municipal elections are more work for voters than federal and provincial elections, especially for young people, and the payoff for the effort isn't immediately obvious.
He would like to see councillors and school board trustees engage youth and consider early voter registration for graduating students.
Clay agrees that high school students should be targeted and a plan to do so was one of the recommendations from a 2012 task force. But it never happened likely, Clay said, because of a turnover in staff and other work that took priority.
Still, Clay thinks more should be done, although the window of opportunity is passing with students closest to the voting age graduating this month.
Councillors are still interested in the idea of increasing voter engagement and Clay said the issue is likely to come up again in the future.
"This is a small thing we can do," he said of the current plan. "But let's have discussions with staff so we can have other ideas. Most people would like to find ways we can make it more powerful."
Gludovitz, who wrote Getting the Majority to Vote, agrees much more could be done to improve voter turnout. He suggests increasing the number of days of advance polling, encouraging people who have already voted to wear buttons saying "I Voted, Did You?" as a visual cue to others, getting celebrities to talk about voting, introducing electronic voting, and contests as was tried in Norway.
PORT MOODY ELECTION TURNOUT
Candidate PR or citizen engagement?
It's not easy for candidates to get their message out to voters and Port Moody wants to make it easier.
The city plans to give candidates in the Nov. 15 civic election an opportunity to post their profiles on the city's website and will encourage them to mail their brochures in a single envelope to voters.
But for some councillors, it's not the city's job to do "public relations" for candidates, and they worry that the city is setting a precedent (Coquitlam also helps candidates distribute brochures, and candidates pay for the service, too).
"The city is not in the business of promoting candidates and when we do, we could be going down a slippery slope," said Coun. Gerry Nuttall.
Councillors are also concerned about sign wars after the city approved a bylaw Tuesday to reduce the number of locations candidates can place signs from 18 to 10. Coun. Rick Glumac even proposed a lottery to assign locations, but it wasn't supported.
A new chief election officer was also appointed; the changes will come into effect in time for the upcoming election.