Voter Turnout in Canada

Since the 1980s, voter turnout in federal elections has fallen sharply. In the 1988 general election, 75 percent of eligible voters participated. In the 2006 general election, only 64.7 percent voted. This article discusses the issue of decreasing voter turnout; in particular, it examines historical trends in the level of voter participation, potential reasons for dropping voter rates, as well as possible initiatives to increase citizen participation.

Historical Trends in Voter Turnout

Lower rates of voter participation

Possible Causes of Lower Voter Turnout

From voter apathy to bad weather

Initiatives to Increase Voting

Reaching out to voters through the Internet

Links to More Information

List of links for more information on this topic


Historical Trends in Voter Turnouts

Lower rates of voter participation

Past Voter Participation

Canada has traditionally enjoy very high levels of voter participation in federal elections. Before World War II, voter turnout in Canada among eligible voters averaged around 70 percent. Between World War II and 1988, this rate of participation was even higher, averaging around 75 percent during federal elections. Moreover, during this period, voter turnout only twice fell below 70 percent; once in 1953 (67.5 percent) and again in 1980 (69.3 percent).

Recent Voter Participation

Since 1988, the percentage of Canadians voting in federal elections has declined significantly. Over 75 percent of Canadians voted in the 1988 federal election. By contrast, only 60.5 percent of eligible Canadians voted in the 2004 federal election. This trend, however, was moderately reversed in 2006 when 64.7 percent of eligible voters participated. Nevertheless, the turnout rate remains well below historical averages.

Year

1988

1993

1997

2000

2004

2006

Voter Turnout Rates

75.3%

69.6%

67.0%

61.2%

60.5%

64.7%

In addition to falling overall voter participation, another significant trend is the extremely low rate of participation amongst youth voters. Approximately twenty-five percent of eligible voters aged 18 – 24 voted in the 2000 federal election. Moreover, studies have indicated that many youth who don’t vote remain uninvolved in the political system, and do not voting when they get older.

Compared to Other Nations

Worldwide, many industrialized countries are experiencing a decline in voter participation. In France, the voter turnout rate for parliamentary elections has fallen from nearly 80 percent of registered voters in 1945 to 60 percent in 2002. Voter participation in U.K. parliamentary elections fell from over 70 percent in 1945 to 59.4 percent in 2001. In the United States, voter turnout for the presidential elections fell from 79.9 percent in 1972 to 67.4 percent in 2000. (Source: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).

The youth vote is also falling worldwide. The U.K. Electoral Commission concluded that the low turnout rate in the 2001 election was primarily due to youth not voting. In the United States only 36 percent of youth between the ages of 18 – 24 voted in the 2000 presidential election.


Possible Causes of Lower Voter Turnout

From voter apathy to bad weather

Timing of the Election

Whenever possible, governments try to hold elections in the spring or fall instead of summer or winter. Summer elections are problematic because many people are away on vacation and don’t take the time to vote in advance polls. In winter, extreme weather conditions can prevent voters from travelling to the polling station.

Timing may have played a role in low voter turnout in the 1953 and 1980 Canadian federal elections. The date of the 1953 election was August 10th, while the 1980 election was held in mid-February. Voter turnout for these elections was 67.5 percent and 69.3 percent respectively.

Long Period of One-Party Dominance

Voter turnout may be low when the same political party has been in power for a long period and the opposition clearly has no chance of winning the election. This was the case in 1953. The Liberals had been in power for nearly twenty years, led first by Mackenzie King and then by Louis St. Laurent, King’s former Minister of External Affairs. At the time the Progressive Conservatives did not have a leader or platform to challenge the Liberals.

A similar situation occurred in 1974. The Liberals had been in power since 1963, led first by Lester Pearson and then by Pierre Trudeau, who served as Justice Minister in Pearson’s cabinet. Voter turnout fell from 76.7 percent in the 1972 election, to 71.0 percent in 1974.

In both cases, the government was re-elected with a majority, supporting the commonly held belief that low voter turnout favors the party in power. By contrast, low turnout rates worked against the government in the 1980 election: the Liberals defeated the PC minority government of Joe Clark. However, the circumstances surrounding this election were unusual. The Conservatives had only been in power six months when they were defeated on a non-confidence vote, after introducing a budget that contained several controversial tax increases, including an 18-cent per gallon gasoline tax. The subsequent election made it clear that the non-confidence vote reflected the voters’ wishes.

Research on Non-participation

Recent research on voter turnout has provided further insight into the possible causes of lower voter participation. In 2003, Elections Canada published Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters. The Report surveyed non-voters in the 2000 federal general election in an attempt to find out their reasons for not participating. The following Table provides some of the reasons given by those surveyed (broken down into different age groups).

Importance of Reason for Not Voting (% very or fairly important)

68+

58– 67

48– 57

38– 47

30– 37

25– 29

 21-24

18-20 Total

Just not interested

31.4
34.0
46.4
50.6
51.8
59.3
57.0
59.1
52.9

Didn’t like parties/candidates

41.7
40.8
56.0
50.9
46.9
43.2
50.7
45.3
47.6

Vote wouldn’t matter

30.6
37.5
47.1
37.9
41.1
36.7
34.3
30.4
37.1

Didn’t care about issues

42.9
28.0
35.7
37.3
36.6
32.8
37.7
36.5
36.0

Busy at work

16.7
14.3
16.5
24.8
36.9
33.9
38.6
40.9
32.2

Out of town

19.4
34.7
16.7
19.3
18.3
21.5
25.1
24.8
21.8

Didn’t know where or when

28.6
12.2
12.9
9.4
19.2
24.4
28.5
28.4
21.1

Not on the list

25.7
16.3
15.5
16.8
16.0
20.3
18.4
24.2
18.7

Too many elections

26.2
24.5
20.0
18.5
21.4
16.5
13.0
9.5
17.3

Illness

41.7
20.4
11.9
11.8
8.5
10.7
9.2
10.8
11.7

(Source: "Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections". Elections Canada. 05 March 2007. <http://www.elections.ca/content.asp?section=loi&document=index&dir=tur/tud&lang=e&textonly=false>)

The above Table indicates a number of findings:

  • On average, most non-participants were heavily affected by general disinterest and apathy with the electoral process, such as not liking the choices of parties/candidates, having a sense that their vote would have no impact on the outcome, and not caring about the issues.
  • Older persons were also affected by issues of illness and problems with voting, such as registering and/or knowing where and when to vote.
  • Middle aged and younger persons were also somewhat affected by logistical issues, such as being too busy with work to make it to the polling station on election night.

Initiatives to Increase Voter Turnout

Possible avenues to encourage voter participation

Encouraging Youth Participation

Voter turnout is lowest amongst the youth vote. Approximately twenty-five percent of eligible voters aged 18 – 24 voted in the 2000 federal election. Moreover, studies have indicated that many youth who don’t vote remain uninvolved in the political system, and do not voting when they get older. One way of increasing voter turnout, therefore, is to encourage electoral participation amongst Canadian youths.

This can involve a number of different sorts of initiatives One possibility is to encourage candidates and political parties to address Canadian youths more directly during election, by addressing youths directly at high schools or university campuses, and by discussing issues that important to youth voters. Another possibility is to encourage youth participation through the use of modern forms of media and communication, which are used to a larger extent by younger Canadians. Many organizations, such as Rush the Vote and Elections Canada, have used the internet as a means of increasing political awareness amongst Canadian youth and providing information on how to participate.

Reform the Electoral System

Some experts place much of the low voter turnout blame on Canada’s electoral system. Canada has a single member plurality system, commonly called First Past the Post (FPTP). In a FPTP system, a single individual represents a specific district. Instead of obtaining a majority of votes, the winner only needs to receive more votes than any other candidate.

FPTP systems tend to produce stable majority governments. However, they also tend to over-reward larger parties with strong regional base of support, while smaller third parties with a national base of support are underrepresented. For example, in the 2004 federal election, the Bloq Quebecois (BQ) - a separatist party that runs candidates only in Quebec - won approximately eighteen percent of House of Commons seats, despite receiving only 12.4 percent of the popular vote. On the other hand, winning 15.7 percent of the popular vote translated into only six percent of House of Commons seats for the NDP, while the Green Party did not win any seats, despite being the first choice of 4.3 percent of voters

Electoral reform proponents believe switching to an electoral system that uses some form of proportional representation (PR) will produce a fairer result and help voters feel that their vote matters. Today, most of the world’s democracies use PR. In Canada, several provincial governments are currently considering switching either to full PR or Mixed Member Proportional, which combines the best features of both PR and the single member plurality system.

According to the World Policy Institute, voter turnout is higher in countries with proportional representation. The following table compares voter turnout rates in democracies with different electoral systems:

Table of Voter Turnout Comparisons, 1995

Country

Voter Turnout Percentage

System

 Belgium

93

PR

 Italy

89

MMP

 Norway

83

PR

 Germany

78

PR

 Greece

77

PR

United Kingdom

76

FPTP

 Spain

70

PR

 France

65

Majority*

United States (1994)

38**

FPTP (for Congress)

(Source: World Policy Institute)

*The winner must receive a majority of votes.
**Based on the percentage of adults aged 18 or over, not the percentage of registered voters

However, voter turnout rates have also fallen in some countries with PR. For example, voter turnout rates in Switzerland fell from 71.7 percent in 1947 to 43.2 percent in 1999. In Austria, turnout for the parliamentary elections fell from 94.3 percent in 1945 to 80.4 percent in 1999, while Israel’s voter turnout rates for parliamentary elections dropped from over 80 percent in the 1960s to 67.8 percent in 2003 (Source: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance). Still, overall, the drop has been less extreme in countries with PR.

Introduce Electronic Voting

Electronic voting removes the logistical problems experienced by voters who can’t make it to the polling station on Election Day, and either don’t know about or are unable to vote in advance polls. Voting by Internet allows voters to cast their ballot without ever leaving home. Proponents of “E-voting” believe its potential extends far beyond elections. Through online votes, surveys, and polls, citizens could regularly provide feedback on a variety of government initiatives, both at the municipal level and higher levels of government.

After exploring the issue since the late 1990s, Elections Canada has concluded there are both potential benefits and drawbacks to e-voting:

  • It has definite potential to increase the voter turnout rate. In a 2000 poll, 62 percent of non-voters said they would have been more likely to vote if the Internet voting option had been available.
  • In particular, it could increase the youth voter turnout rate. In the 2002 Elections Canada survey, a significant portion of young adults age 18 – 24 cited logistical problems as the reason they didn’t vote.
  • There are security concerns – it would be difficult to verify that the correct person is voting, prevent someone from voting more than once, or manipulate data by some other method.
  • Resolving these security concerns would be expensive, and probably require using biometric data to verify a person’s identity.
  • Even with added precautions, public concerns about Internet security and the possibility that the government or other organizations could find out how they voted would have to be overcome.
  • Despite the major increase in Internet use in the last decade, a segment of the voting population still does not know how to use computers, or does not have easy access to a computer.

List of links for more information on this topic

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