Olympic plebiscite poised to blow historical low turnout trope, says expert

A pedestrian walks past vote signs outside a rally in support of the 2026 Winter Olympic bid in Calgary on Monday.

The plebiscite — officially called the Vote of the Electors — takes place on Nov. 13, but advance voting is already complete.

And Calgarians didn’t trickle in to get ahead of the crowds, they lined up eager to vote on the big Olympic question: 

Are you for or are you against Calgary hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games?

“I am for Calgary hosting” or “I am against Calgary hosting” are the two possible answers.

A political scientist at the University of Calgary, Jack Lucas, talked about the history of plebiscite votes and turnout on the Homestretch. He also spoke about it with CBC Calgary’s Andrew Brown. 

This is an edited version of that conversation.

Jack Lucas, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s department of political science, is an expert on municipal politics.(Sarah Lawryuik/CBC)

Q: What do you make of the advance voting numbers?

A: Well, they are pretty high by plebiscite standards. If you compare them to last year’s civic election, which was a record breaking turnout, about 75,000 people turned out in the advanced voting.

If you do a little back-of-the-envelope guesstimate, it suggests we maybe have a voter turnout percentage in the high 30s, maybe even low 40s for this plebiscite.

Q: Is this surprising for you?

A: Yeah, if you compare that guesstimate to past results in past Calgary plebiscites, typically those numbers are very low — especially for plebiscites that don’t happen at the same time as the municipal election.

If those numbers hold, that’s pretty good by municipal plebiscite standards.

Q: Why are numbers typically so low?

A:  When you have a plebiscite at the same time as the municipal election, usually people will vote in it because they show up anyway. When you hold the plebiscite at a different time from the municipal election, people have to be really motivated by just that one question to go out to the voting station, wait in line and determine how they’re going to vote. So often, there’s just a question of motivation and voter knowledge that that keeps turnout low.

Q: It’s been about 20 years since the last plebiscite, what have we seen in terms of turnouts in the past?

A: Typically in off-cycle plebiscites you’re talking about somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent, very, very low rates.

In Vancouver they had low turnout off cycle plebiscites until the Olympic plebiscite, which had a 46 per cent turnout. So we were likely to see quite a bit higher for the Olympic plebiscite compared to these other ones in the past.

Calgary’s Olympic plebiscite vote is less than a week away. The results will give a glimpse into Calgarians are feeling about being a potential host city. But what can the history of Olympic plebiscites, the turnout and their results reveal about the possible outcome? Jack Lucas has been looking into that data. He is the director of the Urban Policy Program and an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.6:50

Q: What is it about the Olympics that draws these kinds of numbers for a plebiscite?

A: It’s just a big ticket item in every sense.

People who support the Olympics are very motivated by it. They’re inspired by the idea of having the Olympics in their city, people who are worried about the Olympics see the enormous price tag.

That motivates people to get out and vote. And it just gets a lot of attention in the media and in general conversation, particularly, as you’ve seen, in the last couple of weeks.

Q: Which side will win the debate?

A:  That’s the question of the hour. I think the if you’re on the no side, the good news is that the polls suggest that the no side has a majority in Calgary right now.

What’s more, is older folks tend to be more opposed than younger folks based on the polling data. And there was older folks are the same people who tend to turn out to vote in municipal elections more than the younger people do.

So, on the yes side, you look at those turnout numbers. And you think maybe this is just a question of motivation. And if they get our supporters to turn out to vote more than the opponents will turn out to vote, maybe they can squeak this one out.

Lucas did a little digging when he saw that this time around there were more voters than in the 2017 civic election. Here’s what he found: