Across Greater Victoria, incumbents fell at an unusually high rate in the Oct. 15 municipal election.
Four out of the six municipalities which had an incumbent mayor facing a challenger saw the incumbent lose (the seven other municipalities were either acclaimed, see Highlands, or the incumbent decided against running, see Metchosin). In Langford, Colwood, View Royal, and Saanich, the incumbent mayors lost their elections. Only in two cases, in Sooke and Esquimalt, did the incumbent win.
But what changed in this year’s election?
“Development was the ballot issue, especially in the West Shore and in North Saanich as well,” said David Black, a political communications professor at Royal Roads University.
Usually, incumbents are more than 40 per cent more likely to get re-elected just by being the incumbent, but councillors usually benefit more from the incumbency effect than mayors.
“The incumbent mayor can often find him or herself on the wrong side of whatever emerges as a kind of key ballot question – (which was) development this cycle.”
Black says this is what happened for pro-development candidates like Stew Young in Langford, Murray Weisenberger (a councillor running for mayor) in North Saanich and to a lesser extent Rob Martin in Colwood.
Outgoing Metchosin Mayor John Ranns said in a previous interview with Black Press Media that he’d noticed a rise in anger among residents this past term, something he said he’d heard from mayors throughout Greater Victoria. Black said while there may be tension rising in part due to the pandemic, it likely didn’t cause the turn away from incumbents.
“Anger is overrated as a thing of political utility,” said Black. Where it could be seen is in conservative populism movements like the VIVA Victoria which had six candidates running for trustee in School District 61, said Black, channeling similar energy that has succeeded elsewhere in Canada, like in wins for new federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and new Alberta Premier Danielle Smith.
“Electorally it was a flop,” said Black.
Voters elected none of the VIVA Victoria slate. Leslie-Anne Goodall came closest, attaining 5,792 votes, or 8.7 per cent, still more than 10,000 off the tally she would’ve needed to be elected.
What may have had an impact was voter turnout. Black said a low voter turnout tends to help the incumbent. Langford saw its voter turnout jump from 18 per cent in 2018 to 24 per cent, based on an estimated total of 35,153 eligible voters.
“That’s a meaningful, incremental change. Part of what animated the wave, I think, is because when you see a major increase in turnout like that is because people who traditionally didn’t vote for whatever reason, show up. They represent a swing vote. They don’t have a kind of fixed loyalty… it’s I’m new to this. I’m really animated by this issue of development.”
Langford Now slate member Colby Harder, who got the most votes of any candidate on the ballot in Langford, said throughout her time canvassing that more people seemed engaged during this election.
“So many people were saying, ‘I’ve never voted in a local election before I’ve lived here my whole life or I just moved to Langford – but I really think that I should vote.’ That was pretty cool to hear. A lot of people were first-time voters, and a lot of people were excited to vote.”
Although higher turnout leading to unseated incumbents isn’t a rule.
Saanich and Colwood’s voter turnout dipped, and the incumbents were ousted. In Saanich, voter turnout dropped to 31 per cent this election from 38 per cent in 2018, while in Colwood, turnout dipped to 26 per cent (3,798 out of an estimated 14,891) of eligible voters casting ballots this year compared to 31 per cent (4,089 out of an estimated 12,968) in 2018.
Black said there are two issues moving forward with municipal elections. The first is the gap in turnout between municipal elections and their provincial and federal counterparts is appallingly large, according to Black – the last federal election saw voter turnout at 75 per cent versus an average of 42 per cent in 2018’s municipal election. The other issue is the high number of candidates running unopposed.
“The workload is very heavy. The pay is often, outside the big cities, terrible. And then there’s just trying to be a useful politician in the social media era, where everybody has an opinion about what you said at the council meeting the other night.
“People have an allergy to paying politicians for their work and at the municipal level, it is seen as public service. Now the job, I do think we need to rethink that. Or else we’re going to get lousy or just unrepresentative councils that don’t look like their voters.”