The media, academics, many politicians, and Elections Canada have bemoaned the progressive decline in voter turnout in federal elections in recent years, from 75 percent as recently as 1988 to less than 61 percent in 2004. Their lament is that low turnout under- mines the basis of Canada’s democratic order. Voting, we are told, is a civic duty, a measure of an engaged citizenry, and a sign of free society’s democratic health. The pall of low turnout hangs over the efforts of Elections Canada, whose attempts to rectify the situation seem to have had little effect. To help change the alleged sad state of voter partici- pation, publicly funded advertising campaigns ”” polluting the airwaves, cluttering newspapers, and lining the pockets of ad agencies and media titans ”” beseech Canadians to exercise their franchise.
To measure Canada’s democratic health by voter turnout is to use a quantitative gauge, one too narrow for assessing the vigour or kaleidoscopic quality of democracy. A democratic polity encompasses many forms of participation. Low turnout with engaged deliberation, dialogue, and debate is a preferred state of affairs to high turnout and political somnambulism. The growth of public interest groups and the emergence of social movements suggest democratic vibrancy. They contribute to informed decision- making, accountability, and the protection of minorities. The level of voter turnout is incidental to these animating principles of a democratic regime. There is nothing excep- tional, moreover, about the Canadian experience: voter turnout has declined in most democratic societies. Is Canada a healthier democracy than the US and Britain because it has higher turnouts?
”œIt doesn’t matter who you vote for,” goes one popular refrain, ”œso long as you vote.” Another chorus line of the get-out-the-vote boosters is: ”œYour vote makes a difference.” Does it? Left wing anarchists observe, ”œIf voting could change anything, it would be illegal.” Some right wing lib- ertarians contend that voting gives false legitimacy to ban- dits who gain a license to pick the public’s pockets. Many in the developing world view elections as a selective tool of American foreign policy. They see it as being offered up like snake oil with promises to help relieve excruciating poverty, mitigate discrimination, and check corruption and maladministration, on condition that the right people (i.e., America’s preferences) are elected. For them, elections are a false messiah, far removed from alleviating hunger pangs, oppression, or their sense of injustice. Then there are those ”” like some of Iraq’s Islamic insurgents ”” who condemn elections as a violation of their creed.
One recurring assertion in the aca- demic literature on Canadian party politics, which may be related to dampening voter turnout, is that the philosophical and programmatic dif- ferences among the parties have shrunk over time, that which party wins does not make much difference in terms of public policy output. If so, this buttresses the argument that vot- ing does not matter. Many electors do not care to vote because they perceive the choices as between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Others see elections as a bore, a meaningless ritual. They are disengaged because the exercise appears irrelevant and inconsequential to their lives.
There are costs to voting. They include travel time, finding and locat- ing the polling booth, and acquiring some minimal amount of information about the candidates, parties, and issues at play. For some, such costs are seen as exceeding the benefits derived from the outcome, particularly if the parties converge in their policy pos- tures. The question of low voter turnout could be reversed: why do so many vote at all? Patronage, once bestowed on faithful partisans by the winning side, has been largely checked. The media and opposition monitor the benefits that accrue to an MP’s riding ”” if he/she is in the gov- erning party ”” closely. Changing pop- ular values and expectations that largesse will be distributed more even- ly has pressured governments to include regions and constituencies where they are unpopular. There are fewer incentives to vote when spoils are no longer to be had.
Polling drives parties’ campaign strategies more than ever, and the parties are keen to follow rather than lead what they take to be public opin- ion. The parties calculate that the key to electoral success is to satisfy voters’ wants and not to try to convince them of the merits of policies they seem to reject. A demotivating effect on turnout may be the very publication of polls; they promise to inform us of an election’s outcome before any ballots are cast. So why bother to vote? Common but questionable assump- tions about turnout are that close races and an appetite for regime change are motivating factors leading to higher turnout. Ontarians, for example, voted for dramatic change in 1987, 1990 and 1995, and they got it in the form of three different parties forming majori- ty governments in three successive elections in just eight years, an unprecedented Canadian phenome- non. Nevertheless, the turnout in all those elections was no higher than the long-term average and was low by comparative provincial standards. It reached its nadir in Ontario at 57 per- cent, on a pleasant sunny voting day in October 2003 yet with another regime change. That same week, 83 percent of Prince Edward Islanders turned out in hurricane conditions to reelect their sitting govern- ment. These facts suggest that neither the weather nor a desire for change are important factors in deter- mining turnout. There are obviously many elements to the voter turnout puzzle, with weather and the pen- chant for change being just two, and we cannot assess precisely how important, if at all, they are. Other factors affecting turnout may include the size of con- stituencies, age, gender, rural or urban setting, the influence of family and friends, electors’ familiarity with each other and the candidates, and their images of leaders and parties. As socie- ty urbanizes, as neighbours are less likely to know one another despite their proximity, as politics is increas- ingly consumed at home by those cocooning in front of their TVs or computer screens, the social function of political talk that once took place on street corners, in church basements and in community centres, has atro- phied. Politics must now compete in TV’s fragmented world of the 500- channel universe and the even more fragmented internet. Leaders’ debates, for example, once broadcast by all the networks and unavoidable by anyone watching TV, are just one of many options for viewers now.
Efforts at coaxing voter turnout are relatively recent in the history of election administration in Canada. Perversely, such exertions and exhorta- tions appear to have a converse effect: the more effort and expenditure to encourage turnout, the lower the turnout. The chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, has mused about compulsory voting. About two dozen countries, including Australia, have it, with a small fine levied as a sanction on those not participating. Alternatively, government could use incentives, paying electors to vote with the money now used to promote voting by advertising, but this would make a mockery of democracy and reduce citizenship to consumerism. Some of what Elections Canada has done in the interests of boosting turnout may have depressed it. Its 2004 advertising campaign telling people that they cannot vote without first being registered neglected to tell them that they could register at the time of voting. The effect of the mis- leading ads was to make voting appear a more clumsy and cumber- some process than it is.
An odd but illuminating finding of the 2004 Canadian Election Study was that young electors (defined as 18-29-year-olds) were the most satis- fied with how Canadian democracy works and the least likely to have neg- ative views of the parties. It is odd because the young have the lowest rates of turnout. Nevertheless, their levels of dissatisfaction with govern- ment and their distrust of politicians, according to these same surveys, are similar to those of older cohorts. This suggests that the young are no more cynical about politics or politicians than others; misanthropy does not deter their participation. What we know about youth’s attitudes from surveys is contradictory and unclear. The 2004 Canadian Election Study reported that the priorities of young and old voters are remarkably similar. But another study of youth by Andre Turcotte during the same election, published back-to-back with the CES study in Elections Canada’s Electoral Insight, demonstrated that the priori- ties of young voters, defined in this case as under 34, are different from those of older voters. What probably accounts for this contradiction is that the first survey was closed-ended and the second open-ended. The first sur- vey offered prompts but the second did not. This suggests that survey responses may be a function more of the researcher’s methodology and ori- entation than the subjects’ thinking.
Youth are targeted for special attention by Elections Canada’s advertising and other efforts includ- ing special publications, programs, school promotions, and a Web site. In the run-up to the 2004 election, Kingsley wrote to over a million newly enfranchised young Canadians to remind them of their right to vote, and then he sent a quarter-million more follow-up let- ters to those who still had not regis- tered, urging them to do so. One justification for showering special consideration on young voters is the provision in the Canada Elections Act that ”œthe chief electoral officer may implement public education and information programs to make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly to those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulty in exercising their demo- cratic rights.” The idea that Canadian youth are a disadvantaged lot is peculiar in light of their high- er levels of education and greater material resources than any previous youth cohort. The turnout deficit among youth ought to be less cause for alarm than their apparent politi- cal knowledge deficit. Forty percent of those under 34, surveyed at the tail end of the 2004 campaign, did not know that Paul Martin was the prime minister. More than half did not know the names of the Conservative and NDP leaders. Should the blissfully ignorant and politically illiterate be so zealously encouraged to vote?
Youth turnout rates are lower than those of older cohorts, although it is unclear by how much. The report- ed gap varies widely. An estimate for the 1984 election suggested it was 15 percent. The 1997 Canadian Election Study suggested an 11 percent gap between those under and over 25. Yet another survey of that year’s election, by Jon H. Pammett, found a gap of 25 percent in turnout between those under 25 and those over 65. Ninety- five percent of the latter reported hav- ing voted. (Do you believe that?) A retrospective survey commissioned by Elections Canada in 2002 reported that only 22 percent of new, young, eligible voters cast ballots in the 2000 contest and that only 54 percent of those who entered the electorate between 1984 and 1988 did so. Another Elections Canada study of turnout in the 2004 election suggested a 39 percent turnout for first-time electors, a significant increase over the 2000 election. Because the method- ologies of these studies vary, direct comparisons cannot be made. Although we lack clarity on the size of the gap, it is apparent that young elec- tors are less likely to participate. However, even this generalization must be tempered with the knowledge that just as older cohorts are likely to overreport their participation, younger ones are likely to underreport theirs. A social desirability bias creeps into all surveys measuring voter turnout, with many respondents skewing their replies to what they per- ceive to be their peers’ or the survey interviewer’s notion of socially accept- ed behaviour. For the young, voting, or at least admitting to voting, may be less ”œcool” than for the old. Reported behaviour and intended behaviour vary notoriously with respect to vot- ing. According to Elections Canada, the turnout in the 2004 election was 60 percent, but three weeks before the election 85 percent of surveyed Canadians said they would vote and, two weeks before, 90 percent did.
Some have suggested that youth turnout could be raised by teach- ing ”œcivics” in schools and by encour- aging youth participation in public affairs and institutions, rather than just studying them. The idea is to cre- ate ”œpedagogy for democratic citizen- ship.” Other proposals are to lower the voting age and to harness new and old technologies, permitting postal voting and e-voting. In some countries, elec- tions are held on weekends when conflicts with work are fewer. These proactive proposals are well-intend- ed, but probably wishful thinking if boosting turnout is the objective. Taking students to view Parliament’s Question Period or having them write letters to MPs may turn them away from politics after they hear the quality of parliamentary debate or receive the formulaic reply letter. The voting age was reduced decades ago, but there is no evidence that doing so increased turnout. Indeed, as the data indicate, overall turnout is depressed by the lag- ging participation rate of youth. The evidence points in the other direction: the younger the elector, the less likely she is to vote.
Turnout would almost certainly be further depressed by establishing a voting age of 16 or 14 (which is what some parties employ in their own internal processes). As for the Internet’s potential, the evidence is lacking that an election would capture the attention of youth and distract them from their chat rooms and games. The turnout in the 2005 University of Toronto student elec- tions, conducted exclusively by e-vot- ing, was 15 percent, about what it was before. The internet is now old hat, and its impact in heightening interest in politics or raising turnout in the 2000 or 2004 elections is question- able. (Some commentators once believed the rise of TV would bring more people into the political process and inflate turnout.) What is striking about recent elections is how the old- est medium, newspapers, continues to sit atop the newsgathering chain and to drive the flow of campaigns with their lengthier stories and analyses.
The job of Elections Canada ought to be, as it was when turnout was substantially higher, restricted to facilitating and monitoring fair and transparent elections, not to prosely- tize for voting. It ought not to pro- claim that voting is important or that it is imperative to participate, because it cannot and should not try to back up those claims. It ought not to act as a slick salesman turning to the manipulators and image-makers of the advertising industry. The sponsorship scandal ”” like the thousands of dollars thrown away in the cause of promoting the Charlottetown Accord, com- batting obesity and smoking, and promoting energy conser- vation ”” exposed the ineffica- ciousness of government advocacy advertising. One of the characteristics of a totalitarian regime, in its concern for securing a high turnout, is to demonstrate its triumphal reach over its subjects. Political apathy can be a sign of resistance to the prevailing political system and its actors.
Non-voting can be every political an act as voting. It may also reflect, paradoxically, one’s sense of responsible citizenship. When I asked the young information technology worker in my office (who has a uni- versity degree) if he was planning to vote, he said ”œno.” He quickly explained that he felt it irresponsible to do so as he had little interest in or knowledge of politics, public policy, and politicians. He felt that, by vot- ing, he would be engaging in an uninformed, empty gesture. He felt it more responsible to leave voting to those who knew more about the issues and parties than he did. This is a wise and thoughtful response, much more so than the ”œIt doesn’t matter who you vote for so long as you vote” line.
The importance of voter turnout is exaggerated. For those who think turnout is important, consider the following: One rationale for the creation of Canada’s permanent vot- ers list was that it would be cheaper than the door-to-door enumeration system that preceded it. The upshot has been that Elections Canada is spending more than ever to conduct elections, and the decline in voter turnout has coincided with the introduction of the permanent vot- ers list. Canada’s long-standing com- mitment to facilitating participation in elections was given little consider- ation in switching to a permanent voters list. Financial considerations trumped the concern for participa- tion. The creation of a permanent voters list may have facilitated voter abstinence because in eliminating door-to-door enumeration, a vital point of contact and information between voters and election officials was removed. By their presence, enu- merators convey notice of an impending election in a personal way. Citizens may be alerted to the location of their polling station, the election date, and which officials might assist them with other queries. Some may be informed of their right to vote, something a surprising num- ber may not have realized.
The personal contact with the enu- merator can be human rather than detached and disembodied. It can heighten for many the sense of obliga- tion to cast a ballot. Another rationale for a permanent voters list was that it would shorten the official campaign period. It had been two months because of the required logistics of door-to-door enumeration. It is now normally five weeks, although the 2006 campaign for the January 23 election was an old-fashioned eight-week writ, partly because of the holi- day hiatus and partly because the incumbent Liberals thought they would benefit from a longer campaign.
The data served up on turnout are never perfect, but with Canada’s permanent vot- ers list, turnout data are less reliable than in the past. Elections Canada officials rec- ognized that the reported turnout of 70 percent in 1993 was artificially low because of the duplicate names and those of some deceased being on the list. Elections Canada also revised upward its estimate of the 2000 turnout from 61 to 64 percent years after the election. The permanent vot- ers list is an inevitably shoddy piece of work, despite best intentions. It is quite different from the list produced by the older, discarded personal enu- meration process. It too had limita- tions; some potential electors, for example, refused to open their doors to enumerators and some were not found at home despite repeated call- backs. Nevertheless, it was generally accurate; in 1988, it captured an esti- mated 96 percent of the eligible popu- lation. There are many more names on the new lists than on the old lists, and the increase exceeds that of the citi- zenry’s growth. Names are now gleaned from multiple sources, includ- ing motor vehicle registrations. Perhaps voter turnout has not declined as much as reported because many per- petual non-voters were not on the old lists but are more likely to be on the permanent list.
The permanent voters list assumes some ”œpermanence” in a society that is ever more mobile. In Toronto, for example, one in every five house- holds moves annually. A ”œperma- nent” list cannot capture or keep up with this reality. Many names appear on it for one constituency and again on the list for some other constituen- cy or poll. (I found my name listed twice for two different addresses in the same poll in the last Ontario election ”” on a list with shared data from the federal permanent voters list. I voted once but the record would have shown that my personal turnout rate was 50 percent had I not made a special effort to inform the poll clerk of this error). Another problem is that many income tax forms completed by bookkeepers and accountants list their address rather than that of the taxpayer. When election time comes, these accountants receive a slew of cards informing their clients where their poll is although they do not live there and they do not receive anoth- er notice where they actually live. Many people, especially tenants, receive voting cards for people they have never heard of, but few of the recipients make the effort to chase down officials to inform them of such misdirected mail and have the names delisted. Even if they do, it may be to no avail. The father of a member of the parliamentary press gallery has made repeated attempts to have his wife’s name ”” she died over a decade ago ”” removed and has given up.
How much has voter turnout actually decreased? It certainly has, but not uniformly, as the Ontario and PEI examples demon- strate. Nor has the decline been as precipitous as we are led to believe. Quebec had a turnout rate of 94 per- cent in its 1995 referendum just two years before 67 percent of Canadians voted in the 1997 election. The rea- son for the exceptionally high turnout in the referendum is that electors, young and old, recognized the importance of the referendum’s outcome. This cannot be said of most elections, where there is little product differentiation ”” to use the language of consumerism ”” among the parties. Many voters are disen- gaged and cynical. Many believe that political action itself leads to little and that, in any case, politicians and poli- tics cannot be trusted. This is the impression conveyed by the main- stream media. Electors absorb it and their behav- iour is logically consistent with it.
The high turnout in Quebec’s referendum demonstrated that a clash of ideas motivates participation. Solutions proffered to boost turnout in elections in the absence of funda- mental choices are bound to fail. Advertising and the promotion of content-free voting are infantile and patronize the electorate. They are not credible inducements to vote but just more advertising noise that is shrugged off. In effect, such efforts contemptuously blame citizens for the failures of their leaders to offer more than what appear as narrow consumer choices. The more pro- found issue for democratic politics in Canada is what to vote for rather than whether to vote. Political engagement and the struggle of ideas, not turnout, must be the measure of our democratic health.