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Social media usage way up in local campaigns; voter turnout, not so much

Nov 22 2011

Social media is as much a part of election landscape as door-knocking these days. But while it might have a wider reach, it's not necessarily translating into more people actually voting.

That was one key lesson learned from Saturday's municipal elections by politicians and social media experts who kept a close watch on the impact of Facebook and Twitter on local campaigns.

Voter turnout increased in only four municipalities over the last municipal election in 2008 — and in some of those very marginally. It's a "bit disheartening," said Don Anderson, a director of Saanich Civic League that works to increase municipal election voter turnout.

"I'm not despondent. It just shows there is more work to be done. It's a constant challenge to get people engaged," Anderson said.

The four municipalities that had an increase all had mayoral races. Colwood rose from 26.5 per cent turnout to 26.77 per cent; Oak Bay from 35.8 per cent to 42.05 per cent; Saanich from 20.6 per cent to 25.35 per cent and View Royal from 23.2 per cent to 27.88 per cent.

But a mayoral race is no guarantee. Central Saanich dropped from 38 per cent to 32.36 per cent, Sidney from 36 per cent to 31.05 per cent and Sooke from 43 per cent to 41.92 per cent — all with choices for mayor.

UVic professor and political pundit Michael Prince said mayoral races can often get more people out to vote, but pointed out that councillors also can be a significant draw. He pointed to Oak Bay, where Mayor Christopher Causton stepped down and longtime councillors Nils Jensen and Hazel Braithwaite vied for the seat.

Yet the Oak Bay results show that more people voted for the top four council candidates than did for either mayoral candidate. Jensen won with 3,197 votes, but the top four councillors had more votes than both Jensen and Braithwaite.

It shows many voters aren't voting on the entire number of available seats, Prince said, which is perhaps a strategy or perhaps a reflection that voters are only voting on who they've definitely made their mind up on rather than taking a chance.

Virtually all candidates now have a website, and most of them also use social media to connect with people.

But those who had traction on social media didn't always win this time round.

Mat Wright, a communications consultant who studies social media, saw several Open Victoria candidates generating large amounts of social media discussion in the last 10 days of the campaign, which he thought might translate into a win for at least one of the candidates. It didn't.

"Social media seem to draw the same audience for candidates, just on a different platform," Wright said. "It's not attracting new voters. It's retaining those who support them."

And now that it's become mainstream, it has to be done well to engage voters, he said. Wright points to Victoria candidate Lisa Helps, who won a council seat, and Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard, who was re-elected despite facing a significant challenge from David Cubberley, as example of politicians using social media well.

"You should ask open-ended questions that allow people to interact. Be yourself, say thank you a lot, react to feedback," Wright said. "And keep it up once the election is over."

Leonard started using Facebook and Twitter for work a year ago, doing all the posts himself. He first saw it in action while volunteering for Barack Obama's U.S. presidential campaign in 2008 and saw how effective it could be.

It's a way of making yourself accessible to people and showing another side of a personality that might not be apparent at council meetings.

Cairine Green, elected to Oak Bay council, also found blogging useful. There were more than 3,000 visits during the course of the campaign, with nearly 75 per cent of those new visits.

"As a relative newcomer to Oak Bay. I was able to make up lost time through blogging and raise my profile sooner and wider," Green said.

kwestad@timescolonist.com

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