Vancouver voter turnout up among youth in 2018, still low among recent immigrants

May 30, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

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.”

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.”

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