“Outside the city hall and around the polling stations in the market building the crowds were thick all day,” reported the Daily Colonist, describing Victoria’s 1907 municipal election. “Among those who stopped to gossip, argue or smoke a campaign cigar, busy workers moved or endeavored to turn votes in their direction. Bets were flying around freely. No fewer than three men moved among the crowd calling for takers for $50 bets on Mr. Patterson, while money for mayor Morley was just as free, although in smaller amounts.”
“The counting of the votes was a time of intense excitement,” the story continued. “Throngs of citizens crowded around the city hall and filled the corridors until it was impossible for one to move. Some climbed up on the windows, whence they could watch the men counting the votes for mayor, while scores of interested wardsmen flattened their noses against the windows in vain endeavor to hear what was going on within.”
It’s a scene that's difficult to imagine a century later – not because people would be watching the results on TV, but because they cared about the results at all. In the 1907 election, some 55% of the city’s registered voters cast a ballot. In our city’s most recent election, in 2005, the turnout was 26.4%, scraping close to the all-time low of 23.9%, set in 1963 when mayor Richard Biggerstaff Wilson ran for re-election unopposed. This year, with federal and U.S. elections dominating our attention, the turnout could be the lowest ever.
What happened? Countless editorialists have puzzled about our declining interest in municipal affairs, even though it’s the local level of government that most affects our daily lives, from the water we drink to the number of police officers on the streets. Indeed, the entire structure of any city really is an accumulated history of municipal government. But it’s a history that’s rarely appreciated.
This is especially tragic when one considers the struggles that have been involved just in achieving the right to vote. When Victoria was incorporated in 1862, provincial law only gave the vote to male British subjects who owned land worth at least £20. Women who owned land first got permission to vote in municipal elections in 1873, although the right was taken away by the province in the early 1890s, restored in 1896, and taken away again in 1908; women did not get full voting rights in B.C. until 1917. (Hence their large turnout in the photo atop this article, taken in 1918 outside a provincial polling station on Government Street; click on the picture for a magnified view.) Victoria’s Chinese community voted in early city elections, but were excluded in 1876, and didn’t get the vote back until 1947. The white authorities restricted the political rights of other racial groups, including First Nations. But not all: Mifflin Gibbs, a black grocer, was elected to city council in 1866, and Victoria’s second mayor, Lumley Franklin, was Jewish. (Both pictured above.)
Even if you were entitled to vote back then, it wasn’t exactly convenient. The secret ballot wasn’t used in Victoria until the late 1870s; in the city’s first elections, eligible citizens voted by walking up to the enumerator and publicly announcing which candidate they supported, a risky act in a small town. Elections were held midweek, and at only one downtown polling station, making it hard for workers to cast ballots. It was only after 1963’s shockingly low turnout that officials moved the local election day to Saturday (this year it’s November 15), and installed multiple polling stations around the city. In addition, cities were required to hold elections every year. B.C.'s Local Government Act lengthened the mayor’s term of office to two years starting in 1948, and a councillor’s term to two in 1973; the current three-year terms weren’t introduced until 1987. A century ago, with annual campaigns, following municipal politics was practically a part-time job.
If Victorians treated voting as an important duty, maybe it’s because the stakes seemed higher. When a city needed to borrow money to finance a capital project, provincial law required the city to get taxpayer approval first. As a result, Victoria’s election ballots included one or more referendum questions nearly every year. Victorians approved the city’s first public library and its first sewers, the tapping of municipal water from Sooke Lake, the replacement of streetcars with buses, the construction of Memorial Arena and Centennial Square, and numerous other projects that determined the burg we have today. (Our most notorious referendum, of course, is the one held in 1992, in which we voted 57 to 43% against treating our region’s sewage – the rare time a city has become internationally famous for not building something.) In 1998 the province changed the Local Government Act to let municipalities borrow more freely, and since then the city’s only referendum was the 2002 approval of the $30-million deal to build the Save-On Foods Memorial Centre. There are no referendum questions in Victoria this year.
The other big difference from municipal elections past is the tone of the campaigns themselves. Today’s candidates are infinitely more civil than the electorate they hope to govern. (So far, most of the 2008 crop has been so timid as to be practically invisible.) It was hardly thus a century ago, when all-candidates’ meetings were prizefights of oratorical wit and cunning, and election night was one of the biggest events of the year.
Mayor Alfred Morley (caricatured at right) won the hard-fought 1907 election against T.W. Patterson, and in 1908 he defended his title against alderman Dr. Lewis Hall. Morley made personal virtue the platform of his 1908 campaign; at one point his lieutenant publicly claimed that “the controlling force behind [Hall] is drink and prostitution, [and] a large sum of money has been raised by assessment upon those engaged in the traffic for the purpose of fighting the election of mayor Morley.” The tactic backfired. The Colonist and the Daily Times endorsed Hall against Morley’s “incomprehensible” slurs, and Hall won by 121 votes, with a nearly 60% turnout.
In a packed room at city hall, Morley congratulated the victor. No one knew it then, but two years later Morley would be back in the mayor’s chair, to oversee relocation of Victoria’s water supply to Sooke Lake – the volume of which was so great that it would ensure city’s expansion for decades to come. Also there that night, among Morley’s supporters, were women from the Victoria branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the group that led the local fight for suffrage. (WCTU leader Frances E. Willard, pictured left, was here in 1883, as was Susan B. Anthony in 1871.) A week before the 1908 civic election, the women had won a temporary injunction to retain their right to vote, and 486 of them cast their ballots before the province could rewrite the election laws. It was the last vote they would be allowed to cast for another nine years.
No one knew that then, either. But they did know that what they were doing would change the course of civic history. That’s why they got involved.