Election turnouts are seen as an important yardstick for measuring the health of the democratic process of the state. Over the past few decades declines in voter turnout in elections have been the object of increas- ing concern in Western societies. Canada is no exception. Canada’s chief electoral officer has expressed concern with the lower participation rates in federal elections and has supported a number of studies aimed at better under- standing the reasons behind this disturbing phenome- non. In the 2000 federal election less than two-thirds of the Canadian electorate cast their ballot and there is little reason to expect that the voter turnout will be greater in the 2004 election.
Most analysts attribute the decline in voter partici- pation to a growing apathy or indifference toward poli- tics and politicians. Yet surveys reveal that a vast majority of Canadians value the right to vote and, when asked, a quite substantial majority declared the inten- tion to cast their ballot in advance of election cam- paigns. In a recent survey conducted by the firm Environics for the Association for Canadians Studies on March 29 – April 18, 2004, some 72 percent said they were absolutely certain to vote in the 2004 federal election and another 20 percent said they probably would vote. Given the extent to which Canadians say they will vote and probable voter turnout it is safe to conclude that there is a gap between attitude and behaviour when it comes to the election. It is a gap that needs to be further considered by researchers when probing the causes of low participation among the electorate ”” only 61 per- cent in the 2002 election, down from 75 percent in the 1988 free trade election ”” especially when one assumes that political disinterest is so entrenched that such behaviour is difficult to modify.
A major 2003 inquiry by John Pammet and Lawrence Leduc into the federal election of 2000 found that only one-quarter of eligible voters between the age of 18 and 24 actually cast their ballot. Canadians were asked to give their opinion as to why the turnout among the younger segment of the Canadian electorate was particularly low. The principal explanations offered were a lack of integration of young people into the political sys- tem and, not unrelated to this, strong feelings of apathy and political distrust. According to Pammett and Leduc some 52 percent described young Canadians as uninterested in voting and disillusioned with politics. For their part, Elizabeth Gidengil et al. in another 2003 study question whether the extent to which youth are dissatisfied with politics is any greater than among older Canadians. They believe the level of frustration is quite similar across generations and therefore are not convinced that disinterest on the part of youth explains their proportionately lower voter participation. Another researcher, Brenda O’Neill, points to low knowledge among youth around political matters. According to the findings of a survey on voting in Canada by the IRPP some 41 percent of respondents aged 18 to 27 follow politics either very of fairly closely, in contrast with 68 percent over the age of 57 that do so. O’Neill, in her 2003 study, contends that low knowledge about politics results in lower degrees of participation.
In the 2004 ACS-Environics survey, youth seemed least inclined to vote with 57 percent of those between the age of 18 and 29 stating they were absolutely certain to vote and another 29 percent declaring that they would probably cast their ballot. By contrast, among persons over the age of 60 some 84 percent said that they were absolutely certain to vote. When it comes to the study of voter turnout the extensive focus on age may detract from demographic and socio-econom- ic factors other than age that influence political behaviour. For example in the ACS – Environics survey, Canadians with lower incomes and less education expressed somewhat less certainty about their intention to vote in this federal election. Moreover the empha- sis on attitudinal explanations for low voter turnout may overly diminish other issues connected to the workings of the political system. One example is the extent to which political parties target and mobilize certain segments of the electorate.
On a regional basis Quebecers were most likely to express the inten- tion to vote in the next federal contest with 78 percent saying they were absolutely certain to do so, as opposed to 73 percent in Ontario. Residents of the Atlantic provinces and the Prairies tied at 66 percent each, while 72 per- cent of British Columbia respondents said they intended to vote. Immigrants of European extraction were also more certain to vote (80 percent) than were more recent non-European immigrants (69 percent).
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The ACS – Environics survey asked Canadians whether they felt their vote in an election had an impact on government policies. Canadians are quite divided in this regard. Of the nearly 2000 Canadians that were surveyed, a slight majority believe that federal voting has either a minor impact (32 percent) or no impact at all (19 percent) on government policies that affect them. Some 20 percent feel their vote has a major impact on government policies versus 28 per- cent that believe it has some impact. Quebec electors represent an impor- tant exception to this pattern with a clear majority (60 percent) indicat- ing their vote has either some impact (22 percent) or a major impact (38 percent) on government policies. In fact the percentage of Quebecers that believe their vote has a major impact is far more substan- tial than it is in any other part of the country wh ere such strong sentiment is held by 14 percent of the population.
The Quebec results are all the more paradoxical given the fre- quently invoked idea of some opin- ion leaders in the province that the province’s electors have little influence on federal policies. There is little difference in the extent to which such sentiments are held by Quebecers according to their party preference. Those who intend to vote for the Bloc Québécois are just as inclined to think that their votes have strong impact on government policy than those who prefer the federal Liberals. It is in the Prairies and British Columbia that electors are least likely to believe that their vote has a major impact on government policies. In particular those residents of Alberta and Saskatchewan are least likely to feel that their vote has such has an impact and the perceived lack of influence is especially severe in the latter province where only six percent of the population believes that their vote will have a major impact. In gen- eral those voters supporting the Liberals and the Bloc tend to believe that their vote has a greater impact on government policy than those vot- ing for the other political parties. This is surely a finding that political par- ties will exploit in attempting to con- vince the electorate of where their votes will have the most impact.
On the basis of age younger elec- tors are indeed less inclined to think that their vote has considerable influ- ence on government policies with some 14 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 believ- ing that it has a major impact, versus 24 percent of persons over the age of 60 that hold such views. Still the gap is not as wide as some observers might assume.
There is undoubtedly a relationship between the intention to vote and the perceived impact of one’s vote on government policy. Where the relationship between intention and impact is perhaps greatest is among the younger segment of the electorate (ages 18 through 29), a group with both one of the lowest rates of expressed voting intention and the weakest sense that their votes will have an impact on government policy. Elsewhere, however, the relationship between intention and impact is less obvious. On the basis of income, while those earning over $80,000 are less likely to believe that their vote has an impact they indicate a greater inclination to vote than persons with less income. Conversely those with lower levels of education indicate a greater propensity to vote but are less convinced than those with higher levels of education about their influ- ence. Finally, on the basis of party preference the relationship is not evi- dent, as Liberals and Bloquistes clear- ly feel that they have more impact but do not express their intention to vote with greater certainty than those supporting the other parties. Clearly on the link between intention and impact more pre- and post-election research will need to be done to better understand those considerations that influence the voter turnout.