Wrestling with voter turnout

Globe and Mail blogger Andrew Steele may have been a bit off with his seat predictions in yesterday’s federal election, but in early September he got another prediction spot-on:

You know what to expect the day after an election.

You open the door in your bathrobe (or less) to grab the paper. There is the blaring headline across the front, a photo of the winner and their spouse, a column on why the winner won… and an article bemoaning the turnout.

The usual suspects are to blame: boring political leaders, uninspiring candidates, negative campaigns, lazy voters, process-obsessed reporters, reality television. But the favourite whipping boy for the morning after is young people. With their hip-hop music and their Hills After Show, kids these days just can’t take their headphones off long enough to focus on important things like fishing quotas or electricity rates.

Sure enough, only 59.1 per cent of Canadians cast votes in an election that returned the Conservatives to another minority government – a record low. In fact, federal election turnout has been declining steadily over the past 20 years (with the exception of a slight bump in 2006). The percentage has dropped 12.5 per cent in that time.

When I logged onto Facebook this morning, almost everyone on my friends list had a status update about the election, and many of them were bemoaning the low turnout number. Here’s a few anonymous highlights:

…is cursing apathy.

…more than 40% of the country don’t give a crap…

…doesn’t understand how 42% of Canadians don’t participate…mark my words those are the ones who do the most complaining.

…is disgusted. A VERY critical election yet with the lowest voter turnout in history? WTF? As a nation, we should be ashamed.

…thinks Canadians should be ashamed of the voter turnout.

…wants 40.9% of you to go get bent.

I share my friends’ disappointment, but I’m afraid I don’t echo their anger. You see, while I certainly wish that more Canadians took part in the political process, I don’t entirely blame non-voters for their apathy, especially in regards to an election with a) a foregone conclusion, and b) no issue or problem driving the campaign. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. In short, citizens who don’t vote are responding to a political system that really provides them with no incentive to take part.

The funny thing about voter participation rates is that there’s been tons of research into why they’ve been declining. Steele cites a 2007 paper by Richard Johnston, Scott Matthews and Amanda Bittner in his blog post, while a quick search through Elections Canada’s archives finds their 2003 study of non-voters. Both point out the obvious: much of the participation decline is due to us younger folk. The Elections Canada spends a large amount of time talking about education and civic participation, which is the sort of failings that Nova Scotia’s “D250” campaign has sought to alleviate. Too bad that the Nova Scotia government missed the other big issue in that Elections Canada study, and the topic that dominates the Johnston paper:


Throughout the 1990s, it was brutally obvious that the Liberals were going to form the government. In 2004, the only question was if it was going to be a Liberal majority or minority. Same thing with the Conservatives yesterday. The one exception? 2006. Where there was an increase in voter turnout.

But it’s more than just what’s going on at the national level. The number of competitive ridings in Canada has decreased significantly, especially as Canada’s political parties have retreated towards regional bases of strength. The majority of ridings in Canada are called quickly after the polls close. Here in Nova Scotia, many ridings were treated as foregone conclusions with non-incumbent parties scrambling to find opponents.

For all our complexity as individuals, human beings are still amazingly susceptible to the simplest of stimuli: incentive. All the “civic duty” marketing in the world can’t compare to the basic effectiveness of giving people a reason to care. Some people care because they support a particular cause. Others have a family allegiance to a certain party. Others find a particular candidate they strongly support.

But voters without an obvious, immediate incentive are driven by a key question: does their vote matter? And far too often in Canada, it doesn’t.

In our first-past-the-post system, there is no electoral incentive to show up at the polls if your candidate of choice is all but certain not to win. If you live in dependably orange Halifax and support the Conservatives, why bother? If you live in Alberta – outside of Edmonton, it seems – and support anyone other than the Conservatives, why bother? Millions of Canadians look at their choices each election and ask, why bother?

So yes, first-past-the-post needs to go, to be replaced by some sort of system that incentivizes voting regardless of whether or not your candidate is going to win. But we also need to break our political culture of a complacency that cripples electoral competitiveness.

Perhaps there are some good lessons to be learned from our neighbours to the South. Four years ago, establishment Democrats mocked Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” which sought to build Democratic organizations from coast-to-coast, even in states where the party had little chance of victory anytime soon. Dean’s argument was two fold: that Democrats should ask every American for their vote, and that it positioned the party to ride an electoral wave should the political winds shift. Four years later, the Democrats are poised to make significant gains in both houses of Congress and elect a president with electoral vote counts rivaling Bill Clinton.

So let’s see less token candidates. Let’s start recruiting stars. Let’s start working on improving our political system in ways that make it an attractive option for some of Canada’s leading citizens. Let’s give Canucks a reason to give a damn. Because just telling them that they should ain’t good enough.


2 responses to “Wrestling with voter turnout

  1. How many different choices are there for Queen? How many different possible outcomes, for who is Queen after voting day, do elections involve?

    The executive authority of and over Canada is vested in the Queen.

    Is the act of voting considered to be giving voluntary implied consent to the idea that Elizabeth II is Queen?

  2. When New Zealand switched to PR their turnout increased marginally.

    My favourite study about increasing turnout: Yale researches sent people a letter stating whether they had voted in each of the past three elections. It also stated that following the upcoming election, a letter would be sent to all of their neighbours indicating whether or not they had voted. That got turnout to spike!

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