Voter apathy persists in Waterloo Region

The unofficial results are in from the 2014 municipal elections in Waterloo Region. In spite of vigorous mayoral races, a big-budget challenger for regional chair and online voting in Cambridge, the number of ballots collected at the polls reflects an electorate that continues to be disengaged.

Voter turnout in Kitchener improved slightly to 29.94 per cent compared to 28.55 per cent in 2010.

In Cambridge, notwithstanding the introduction of online and telephone voting, turnout was relatively unchanged. This year, 29.89 per cent of voters cast their ballot compared to  28.71 per cent in 2010.

City of Waterloo’s electorate was the most engaged of the three cities of the region, with 35.93 per cent voter turnout this year. However, last election the city saw 41.16 per cent turnout.

Bob Williams, a retired University of Waterloo professor of political science, expected competitive open mayoral races in Kitchener and Waterloo to boost voter turnout.

“But that didn’t happen, except in a very marginal way, and ironically one of the cases where there was not a competitive race was in Cambridge, yet there was a little bit of [an increase].”

The day after the election, Williams  who taught municipal politics for 35 years  is pondering why voter turnout declined in Waterloo.

“I don’t have a definitive answer just yet. I’m wondering whether this fairly vitriolic campaign that went on around the LRT spilled over into people basically saying, ‘I don’t believe anybody. Don’t vote, it only encourages them. I’m just going to sit on my hands.'”

“The whole issue of who to believe was very significant,” Williams said, “you probably sided with the viewpoint that you went in with. But if you went in with no opinion, you had sets of numbers, claims, accusation and whatever that just didn’t square.”

“I think for a lot of people it was a combination of ‘I just can’t figure this out,’ or ‘I’m just too overwhelmed by it and it’s just too much for me to waste any time on.'”

In addition, the polarizing ballot questions in Waterloo regarding water fluoridation and whether to discuss the merits of amalgamation with Kitchener, “probably were hidden factors,” that contributed to an increase in voter turnout in 2010, Williams said.

At the macro level, depressed voter turnout may be connected to dropping levels of community engagement, volunteerism, and membership in service clubs, churches and political parties.

Peter Woolstencroft, also a retired University of Waterloo professor of political science, suggests voter apathy is deeply seeded in today’s egocentric society, where individual satisfaction trumps community involvement.

“This leads people to not to want to participate in traditional social institutions. Traditional churches are in trouble, there’s been a norm breakdown, so that people think their happiness is what’s important. They want to be happy,” rather than lead engaged lives in the community, Woolstencroft said.

“The great majority of [politicians] are well intended. So we don’t a problem of a lack of people with good motivations wanting to serve in politics. But we have a problem with a lot of people who are not well motivated to be citizens.”

“It’s hard to be a citizen, because you have to actually think about stuff; you have to cut through the rhetoric and piffle and say ‘okay what’s really going on here, what’s important to me and how can I best express myself?'” Woolstencroft said.

“And it’s more fun to watch kitty movies on YouTube.”


An earlier version of this story erroneously listed Kitchener’s 2010 voter turnout as 24.5 per cent.