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St. John's East drew highest percentage to polls in province, due to competitive race: MUN political science professor
In an election where just about every riding in Newfoundland and Labrador had fewer voters show up at the polls than in the 2015 election, the race in St. John's East was a different story, and a Memorial University political science professor is not surprised by that.
"I think a lot of the variation in turnout across ridings — not just Newfoundland, but across the country and over many elections — is really a function of the competitiveness of the riding," associate professor Scott Matthews told The Telegram in an interview Tuesday. "In 2019, Newfoundland and Labrador is almost a perfect demonstration of that."
St. John's East, where NDP candidate Jack Harris defeated Liberal incumbent Nick Whalen, was the only riding in the province that experienced an increase in voter turnout compared to the last election in 2015, jumping slightly from 67.9 per cent to 68.3 per cent. Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole declined by three per cent in voter turnout, falling from 61.1 per cent in 2015 to 58.1 per cent this year. National turnout in 2019 was barely under 66 per cent.
Matthews has researched voter turnout alongside his MUN political science colleague Amanda Bittner. Looking at data from five elections nationally, they've found that tight races increase turnout significantly.
"In the research we've done in the past, our explanation really is not so much about the voters but parties. When a race is really competitive, more than one party has an incentive to work to get people out to the polls, and in fact when a race is uncompetitive, the anticipated winner and all the anticipated losers don't really have a big incentive to get out there, knock on doors and put up a lot of signs and create a lot of buzz. It's kind of wasted effort."
The fact the turnout in St. John's East was generally 10 percentage points higher than every other riding in the province back up those findings.
"You see that as well in 2015," Matthews said, noting St. John's East and St. John's South-Mount Pearl both experienced high voter turnout that year, with two incumbent NDP candidates losing to Liberals. In 2019, voter turnout in the latter riding declined 11.5 per cent compared to 2015.
"My sense is that last time (in 2015), St. John's South-Mount Pearl felt a lot more competitive to people in advance and the provincewide sweep (by the Liberals) was unexpected."
On the flipside, provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan generally did not have very competitive races, yet their provincial averages were both above the Canadian average. Matthews chalks that up to anger as a factor encouraging the electorate to get out and vote.
Among the Canadian provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest voter turnout, and that's nothing new. It was the same case in 2015, 2011, 2008 and 2006.
Matthews suspects the ABC "Anything But Conservative" campaign that then-premier Danny Williams waged prior to the 2006 election may factor into these consistently below-average turnouts. Since then, only two Conservatives have managed to win an election — Fabian Manning and Peter Penashue — and neither of them were re-elected.
"There's a competitiveness story there as well," Matthews said. "I hesitate to say that there's anything peculiar about the political culture of the province. Although there are lots of stereotypes about Atlantic Canada, I don't really think they tend to hold too much water. I think this is a fairly engaged place politically."
Matthews also suggests voter fatigue could factor into the low voter turnouts in Newfoundland and Labrador, where a provincial election was held earlier this year.
"But I think the fact that most of the province was really solidly Liberal and that was well known is the simplest explanation," he added. "I didn't travel the province or anything over the last month, but I certainly didn't get the sense that there was a ton of campaigning anywhere, and there were absent candidates that weren't turning up for debates even."