Despite the City of Vancouver’s recent efforts to engage communities with historically low voter turnouts, a new report shows that visible minority groups were significantly less likely to vote in last October’s civic election.The city has tried, in recent years, to address this long-standing issue, including the creation of a new position, a dedicated outreach coordinator hired on a temporary basis for the 18 months leading up to last year’s election.City staff presented a report to council earlier this month that included an Insights West survey of voter behaviour from last year’s election. The survey, conducted through a mix of exit polling, online surveys and phone interviews, found some segments of the population — including recent immigrants, youth, renters, and visible minorities — were less likely to have voted.“Caucasian Vancouverites are significantly more likely to be voters, while visible minority groups are significantly less likely to be voters,” the report notes.The findings were “discouraging,” but “not a surprise,” said Tung Chan, a former Vancouver councillor and past CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S., the long-running immigrant support organization.Chan, who is originally from Hong Kong and came to Canada in 1974, said this has been a persistent challenge in Vancouver.It’s concerning, he said, because “In the democratic election process, politicians will tend to cater to the concerns of people who tend to vote.”“There are a lot of issues that effect all communities, of every background. However, there are also issues that impact immigrant communities more,” said Chan, president of the Non-Partisan Association from 1994 to 1998. “So if people of certain ethnic backgrounds are not coming out to vote, issues that effect them more than other individuals… tend to be viewed as not as important, so the policy response to those concerns are more lacking.”
Former Vancouver Councillor Tung Chan was discouraged, but not surprised by a report that determined Caucasian Vancouverites are significantly more likely to be voters, while visible minority groups are significantly less likely to be voters. Photo: Gerry Kahrmann/Postmedia
There are a number of reasons recent immigrants might be less likely to vote get involved in politics, Chan said, including language barriers, and coming from places with political cultures very different from Canada.Also, when immigrants arrive in a country like Canada, Chan said, they often focus on other priorities — such as establishing themselves financially and securing education for their children — before they look at getting engaged in civic politics. It often takes between five and 15 years, Chan said, before new immigrants feel settled and established.Chan’s comments were reflected in the Insights West survey, which found Canadian-born respondents were more likely to have voted in last year’s Vancouver election, while those who had been citizens for fewer than 20 years were less likely. However, the survey found, immigrants who had been Canadian citizens for more than 20 years were statistically significantly more likely to have voted.“There’s a sense of integration and identity,” Chan said. “They identify themselves as a Canadian or a Vancouverite.”It’s fairly common in Canada that immigrants who have been in Canada longer are more likely to vote, said Sara Pavan, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC who researches the civic and political integration of immigrants. In fact, Pavan said, Canada has done better than most other western democracies, including those in Europe and the U.S., at “closing the gap between the foreign-born and the native-born” when it comes to political engagement.Last year’s voter turnout in Vancouver of 39.4 per cent was down 4 per cent from the previous election, but still above the city’s historic average of 36 per cent, and higher than the 2014 turnout in other large Metro municipalities, such as Surrey, Burnaby and Richmond.The report before council this month outlines several new staff initiatives introduced before the 2018. Acting on a recommendation from an Independent Election Task Force following the 2014 election, the city hired a temporary dedicated election outreach coordinator, whose goals included “increasing overall voter turnout by improving engagement with low voting communities and demographics.”
Paul Hendren served as the city’s first dedicated election outreach coordinator in the run-up to last October’s municipal election.
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That coordinator, Paul Hendren, said one positive trend was that while almost every age bracket had a lower voter turnout last year compared with 2014, the typically low 25-to-34 range actually saw a slight increase.No data was available to compare ethnicity of voters between 2014 and 2018, Hendren said, adding: “with the data we’re collecting now we can start to benchmark and track comparisons in future elections.”Some of Hendren’s outreach work last year took him to elementary and secondary schools, teaching students about elections.The city hopes that work pays dividends in the future when those kids grow into informed eligible voters, Vancouver’s chief election officer Rosemary Hagiwara said.But there’s also a hope that those kids, particularly those in ethnic communities with historically low voter turnouts, will take that education home, Hagiwara said. “We’re hoping that message will pass on to the parents.”There were several other factors that made Vancouver’s 2018 election different from previous years, including stricter new provincial campaign finance rules and an unusually long list of candidates.In a council meeting earlier this month, NPA Coun. Kirby-Yung raised concerns about one other new feature of the 2018 election: it was the first Vancouver election in 25 years where candidates’ names were listed in random order, instead of alphabetized, on the ballot.The random ballots were produced at the request of the previous council, who had approved a motion entitled “Taking the ABCD bias off the ballot.” The motion said: “An alphabetical bias in the ballot would have a particularly negative impact on people who have last names that are Chinese, South Asian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese or Latino — among others — as people from these cultures are much less likely to have last names that start with A, B, C, or D.”However, Kirby-Yung said in council: “There was one really key concern that leapt out for me in the report, and that’s really whether or not there’s a racial bias to the random ballot.”Kirby-Yung cited the survey released this month on the 2018 election, which found Caucasian respondents (32 per cent) were considerably less likely than other groups (including South Asians, at 52 per cent) to report they found the random-order ballot confusing.“I really worry, given the fact that we’re dealing with people with different backgrounds and languages, that an unintended consequence of that random ballot was actually to disenfranchise people who we’re trying to engage,” Kirby-Yung said in council.Reached by phone, Kirby-Yung said she had concerns about the random ballot last year when it was announced. Members of visible minority communities may have been more likely to have trouble with the ballot, Kirby-Yung said, because they may already have other barriers to voting such as firstname.lastname@example.org/fumano