Low voter turnout and delayed results cast shadow over Brandon civic election

Disappointed political watchers in Brandon, Man., are trying to understand how voter turnout once again failed to crack 20 per cent in Wednesday night’s civic election.

Jeff Fawcett was officially declared the winner in the city’s two-person mayoral race on Thursday morning, after a long wait for results that a city official says was because ballots had to be counted by hand.

But Fawcett, who defeated Elliott Oleson 4,759 votes to 1,777, said voter turnout was a disappointment.

A tally released by the city Thursday said just 17.9 per cent of the 36,528 eligible voters cast ballots — a number slightly up from the 2018 civic election, which saw 16.86 per cent voter turnout.

Brandon University political scientist Kelly Saunders says it’s unfortunate to see the trend of lower voter turnout continue, especially since the city had a contested mayoral race this year.

Finding ways to increase engagement for future elections is the “million-dollar question,” not only in Brandon but across the county, she said, noting recent municipal elections in Ontario also saw voter turnout hovering around 20 per cent in some cities.

“We’re not alone in this … decline in voter turnout,” she said. “It seems to be happening across the country.”

The City of Brandon needs to ensure it’s doing everything it can “to make sure voters have the information that they need … and that they’re generating some interest,” she said.

That could include having candidate lists available sooner for the public, better signage to promote voting and stronger advertising in the run-up to the next election, said Saunders.

“Then it’s on city councillors as well, once they get elected … to try to keep that engagement going with voters.”

Voters walk by a sign that says "Brandon Votes."
Voters arrive at the Keystone Centre voting station to cast ballots on Wednesday. Only 17.9 per cent of the 36,528 eligible voters cast ballots, the city says. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Association of Manitoba Municipalities president Kameron Blight said this year’s municipal elections included some competitive races that got people excited about going to the polls.

In many cases, those races translated to stronger voter turnout, he said, but that wasn’t the case in Brandon, where candidates were acclaimed in four of the city’s 10 wards. Three other wards had only two-person races.

Blight suspects potential voters may have been content with the status quo, might have faced accessibility-related issues, or had COVID-19 concerns that stymied final turnout numbers.

Alternative methods of voting or more exciting topics of debate might have led to greater numbers of ballots cast, he said.

“If there’s something going on in the municipality that people are either excited about or disappointed in, that brings them out,” Blight said. 

The low turnout “could be because there’s individuals that are content or there’s no major issues that they’re super concerned about,” he said.

Without vote tabulators, ballots counted by hand

After a long wait for official results, Oleson conceded the election to Fawcett just after midnight on Thursday.

The fact results weren’t released by the city until hours after that is unfortunate and cast a shadow over Fawcett’s win, Saunders said. 

Being named mayor-elect should be a “celebratory moment” and “a positive experience,” with a focus on the future, but that’s difficult when election results are delayed, she said.

“It’s not fair to him or to indeed any of the candidates … that ran and won yesterday, because that is going to taint their win.”

A group of people check out a cell phone.
Fawcett with his wife, Jodi Fawcett, left, and Alana Young at the Riverbank Discovery Centre on Wednesday. The mayor-elect says Brandon city council will address the slow rollout of election results immediately. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

She expects the low voter turnout and the slow reveal of election results will likely be among of the first things Brandon’s new council will tackle.

Brandon’s senior election official, Heather Ewasiuk, says votes had to be hand-counted — a first for the city since 2006 — because the city couldn’t secure vote tabulators.

“So we had to make some decision in August to switch to hand-counted ballots,” Ewasiuk said.

Initially, it was hoped results would be ready by 11 p.m. or midnight, but unofficial results weren’t released until around 3 a.m. Thursday, Ewasiuk said, largely because the advance polls took longer to count than expected.

For future elections, “certainly we’re going to be a little more ahead of the bull as far as securing tabulators. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Ewasiuk said. “It certainly is worth the investment because it speeds up the end of the night.”

The mayor-elect says Brandon city council will address the slow rollout of election results immediately. 

City council is waiting for an analysis of the election, and will then look at making some changes and corrections, Fawcett said.

“We learned a lot. We will not be wanting to be counting [by hand] again,” he said.

“We do need to review and probably put away a little bit more money to have a bit bigger and better team.”