Monday morning, Albertans woke up to the possibility of electing a new government as polls opened across the province in the 2008 provincial election. A day later, 60 per cent of Albertans woke up after having not exercised their right to vote and 22 per cent jubilantly woke up to a super-majority government that they had elected.
Though the Alberta Liberal Party was unanimously labelled as the biggest losers Mon. night in an election where the voter turnout is estimated to be 41 per cent, everyone in the political process failed. The turnout is the lowest turnout in a Canadian provincial election in the last 50 years and nearly a four per cent drop from a dismal 2004 election.
Despite the various storylines the election had--discontent with the royalty review, PC leader Ed Stelmach doling out millions of dollars in the days leading up to the election, the possibility of the Wild Rose Alliance party splitting the PC vote--people didn't come out to the polls. The PCs rallied enough people to their cause to vote in a large legislative majority and perhaps in their victory they aren't nearly as at fault as the other political parties in the low voter numbers. The Liberals presented an alternative, yet failed to draw people to them and their change rhetoric, the NDP lost two seats and didn't draw in any more support despite a lot of union discontent and the Wild Rose party did not draw any more people to the polls as the fresh face of the right. Whether or not the issues drew people out and whether or not they had an effect on voter turnout played a secondary role to the massive failure of Elections Alberta and the numerous barriers they created for voters: the Elections Alberta website was down for the first hours of polls being open, voter lists at the polls were incomplete and voter cards mailed in advance had inaccurate information on them.
Elections Alberta's website was put out of commission by a 30,000-hit surge in the first half-hour and was not brought back online until the early afternoon. This suggests that in preparing for the election, Elections Alberta did not actually put its web server through a high-volume stress test--a ridiculous miscalculation. When the website was finally available, finding the page which told you where to find polling stations was still a chore, until a little later in the afternoon when they put the "Where do I vote?" link on the front page. The website's failure created a barrier for everyone, but greatly affected two specific groups of people: first-time voters and students. Voters new to Alberta or young people voting in their first election would not know where to vote in their first election and, with the Internet now the medium people use most for information, the website's downtime meant new voters had to labour to find out where to vote. This greatly affects students as well, who are also likely voting in their first provincial election and tend to move around a lot more during their post-secondary education as relatively short-term renters.
In the website's absence, the secondary information available to people was inaccurate. Voter cards sent to some Liberal supporters, according to a Tue., Mar. 4 Calgary Herald article, directed the voters to the wrong polling station. All of the polling station confusion led to calls being placed to candidates and to Elections Alberta.
Elections Alberta needs to publicize polling stations earlier and more often to avoid a surge of visits to their website knocking it out of commission in the crucial early hours of voting and to generally avoid confusion.
Amazingly, on top of this, the University of Calgary's own voter turnout was also damaged by the lack of a Calgary-wide poll on campus, misinformation provided by various election officials to students and a complex special ballot process. SU vice-president Mike Selnes told the Gauntlet that most students expected a Calgary-wide poll on campus after there was such a successful one during this fall's municipal election. In the absence of one, students stuck on campus all day, who maneuver around Calgary's car-centric city mainly by transit, didn't vote. Selnes also said that information provided by returning officers about whether or not students could vote in Calgary-Varsity or they had to vote in their home riding was wrong and changed throughout the process. If students couldn't vote in Calgary-Varsity, which was often the case, they had a short window to file for special ballots.
As much as it is easy to blame the 60 per cent of people who didn't vote and say that they don't care, the job of Elections Alberta is to keep people informed and the various political parties need to better inspire voters. The burden of voting is not just on the voter. Both Elections Alberta and the parties failed voters in this election. An ad campaign by Elections Alberta urging people to vote is not enough. Information on where to find polling stations needs to be published early, often, in many different forms and accurate the first time. The damage Elections Alberta did to this election is irreversible and inexcusable. The parties, though not nearly as much to blame, need to do a better job of inspiring voters to make it out to the polls. Welcome to the new Progressive Conservative majority: 87 per cent of the seats elected by 22 per cent of the eligible voters.