In Our Words: Looking at why so many northerners didn't vote

Now that the provincial election is in the rear-view mirror, let’s talk about how dismal the turnout for this year’s vote was. Province-wide, barely half of all registered voters actually cast a ballot. That’s pitiful enough. Up north, it gets even worse - and there are reasons.

If you’re reading this in a public place, look up from the page right now. Look to the person to your left, then look to the person to your right. According to the statistics for our riding, two of you didn’t vote.

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Let’s examine why the turnout was low. When there’s a vote that people think is going to be a landslide, they tend to stay home. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect a landslide in this election - at least, not in Flin Flon. NDP candidates won all four northern ridings pretty handily, but Theresa Wride improved on the Progressive Conservatives’ (PC) performance over 2015. I thought the race would be a lot closer than it was. Most of the people I spoke with anticipated a squeaker.

Maybe it’s because the provincial picture looked like an almost certain PC majority. That said, I feel like that’s not the case since while the provincial picture looked blue, the regional picture has looked orange for a very long time. Surely, NDP voters would be motivated to vote against a coming PC majority and PC voters would vote against the NDP juggernaut in Flin Flon, right?

What about people who just weren’t motivated by any of the options on the board? That would make sense for people who disagreed with major platform points of the PCs and NDP. I know plenty of people who disliked both. That said, both parties that presented themselves as alternate options, the Manitoba Liberal Party and Green Party, had low showings in the vote. Did people who didn’t like either main party just decided to grit their teeth and bear it anyway? Did they just stay home?

Those could have all been reasons why few people showed up, but I think the real reason for poor northern turnout is more insidious than that. I think there are two main reasons for lousy vote numbers - demographics and location.

According to fairvote.org, an American voter information website, in any election, the average voter tends to be older, more educated and has some extra cash in the bank. Young people, poorer people and people with less education tend to not cast ballots.

This might be key, looking at the Churchill-Keewatinook Aski federal riding profile. I know, it’s a federal riding and we’re talking about a provincial contest, but the federal riding contains not only the Flin Flon provincial riding, but almost all of the other three northern provincial ridings.

The median income for the Churchill-Keewatinook Aski riding is the lowest of any Canadian federal riding - just over $15,000 a year. The median age for the riding is the second-lowest of any federal riding in Canada at 26.3 years old. The riding also has the worst child poverty rate of any Canadian federal riding - almost two thirds of northern Manitoba kids are growing up in poverty.

When you’re poor, your biggest priority is just making it through the day, providing for you and your family. When your prospects aren’t bright and you don’t have the chance to change that, due to location, family or other circumstances beyond your control, casting a ballot is pretty far down the list of priorities. Yes, your employer is legally mandated to give you at least some time to leave work to vote, but if you don’t have a job and need to keep the lights on somehow, how do you find the time?

Many communities in northern Manitoba still lack the basic amenities we can easily take for granted in Flin Flon. Not every community has decent internet. Some don’t have roads going into town. If someone wants to vote in Tadoule Lake, are they going to be able to get to the polls before they close? Are their votes even going to be counted by the time the winner is called?

Let’s look for a second at the most remote riding in this provincial election, Keewatinook. Very few communities in the riding are connected to Manitoba’s highway system in the summer. Getting anywhere is a tough undertaking. Taking that into consideration, is it really shocking that less than a fifth of people who could vote in this riding actually did? I’m just happy 2,488 people in that riding managed to get to the polls at all.

Having a low voter turnout in northern riding is not an ailment. It’s a symptom of years and years of neglect. It’s chickens coming home to roost. People in remote areas in the north have remained poor through provincial administrations led by the PCs and the NDP - hell, they were poor back when Liberal Douglas Lloyd Campbell ran the show back in the 1950s.

Not everyone in this riding is as lucky, relatively speaking, as us Flin Flonners are. Until that’s addressed and fixed, we’re going to have few people at the polls.

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