A ripple of excitement a few days ago in Lotus Land when the New Democratic Party won two seats in provincial bye-elections in British Columbia. One headline suggested it was the start of a “come back” for the NDP, the party media and pollsters had favoured to win the 2013 general election – and were disastrously wrong.
Radio and television stations burbled the same theme seemingly determined to repeat their inaccurate readings of political indicators – or maybe believing the old saying that if you forecast the same election victors often enough, one year you’ll get it right.
Whatever their reasoning they should know better. Bye-elections are not always lost by the political party in power, but they usually are. Bye-elections give the people, including party faithful, the opportunity to send a signal to government that performance is being watched; that it holds power courtesy the electorate and can be removed from office should it wander from the paths of truth and justice.
A bye-election vote may be a warning shot across the bows, but it is not the same as a general election broadside designed to banish the government in power and replace it with one with more promise of better management. The bye-elections in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver Mount Pleasant were far from damaging broadsides aimed at the Liberal government and equally far from a ringing endorsement of NDP candidates – even in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant which is surely one of the safest, if not the safest, NDP seat in the province.
There are 40,000 registered voters in the riding where the NDP’s Melanie Mark sought to replace Jennie Kwan in the February 2 vote. In the 2013 general election Kwan had been returned to office – again – with 12,154 of the 21,031 registered votes cast. The Liberal candidate was close to nine thousand votes behind with 3,505.
When the bye-election vote was taken only 8,801 valid votes out of the possible 40,000 were cast. Ms. Mark, NDP, attracted 5,353; Liberal Gavin Dew was a distant third in the five candidate race with 994. Well ahead of Dew was Peter Fry of the Green Party with 2,325 of the total valid votes cast – about 200 more than they had received in the 2013 general election.
There were no surprises in the runaway NDP victory or in the desultory Liberal loss of 2,000 votes in a riding they could never win. There was some surprise in the Green Party vote. To attract more votes in a bye-election than you did in a general election has to be a boost for the Cinderella Party as the province heads for May 2017 and the next general election.
In Coquitlam-Burke Mountain the race was always regarded as tighter than Vancouver-Mount Pleasant – and so it proved with the NDP taking the seat with 3,607 votes to dislodge the Liberals with 2,954. The Green Party trailed in third with 1,051 – only 90 or so votes less than the 2013 general election vote.
No real surprises in either result or in the shameful turnout in both ridings. Quite amazing really that with all the effort Elections BC has gone to make voting easy, only 8,801 of 40,000 registered voters could stir themselves to vote in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant and only 7,757 of close to 39,000 in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain could find 10-minutes of time to cast a ballot.
Maybe Elections Canada and Elections BC have made it too easy for us to vote in any election – general or bye. I wonder what would happen if federal and provincial voting laws were changed with a “use it or lose it” slogan in mind. No more “please vote” pleas, no more suggestion of fines for not voting – just a removal of the right to vote. Failure to vote in a municipal, provincial or federal elections bye-election would cost a citizen the right to vote in the next election – a right which could only be restored by a subsequent recorded vote registered by a returning officer.
Just a thought: Use it or lose it – and I confess to a fear that many thousands across Canada wouldn’t care.