Canadian Federal Elections

Canadian Federal Elections

Low voter turnout in the Canadian Federal Elections has long been an issue in Canada for quite some time. As Knox noted back in 1984, "participation in Canadian federal elections since 1960 has ranged from a high of 79% in 1962 and 1963, to a low (at that time) of 69% in 1980."

This, as Knox continues, is dramatically low when compared to other European national elections, such as France who had an 85.8% voter turnout in 1981 or Sweden with a 91.5% turnout in 1982, or West Germany with an 89.1% turnout of voters in 1982. By the 2000 national elections, the percentage of voter turnout in Canada was a disturbingly low 64.1% of registered voters (Heard). This paper explores the issue of low voter turnout and the root causes of this dilemma. In addition, the strategies for improving voter turnout will be explored, the way forward for the Canadian Electorate.

The figures show that turnout in Canadian federal elections, when compared as a percentage of registered electors, has declined significantly in recent years. In the years following the Second World War, turnout averaged approximately 75%. The only exceptions to this were in the years 1953, 1974, and 1980. The reasons for these unique declines could be found in the fact that elections were held at either the height of winter or summer, or as in the case of the 1953 election, it occurred during a long period of one-party domination.

The declines in voter turnout in 1974 and 1980 were during periods of the fall of minority governments, in addition to having a general climate of relative public dissatisfaction with politics (Pammet & LeDuc).

However, as Pammet and LeDuc note, in contrast to these three sporadic declines in voter turnout, the recent drop in voter participation is a more prolonged decline over the last three elections.

In 1993, voter turnout was 70%. By 1997, it had fallen to 67% of registered voters. and, finally, in the 2000 general election, only 64.1% of registered voters turned out to exercise their right to vote. Because of this prolonged decline, the scholarly community, the media, and the general public have all expressed concern.

Figure 1 demonstrates that voter turnout decline is not unique to Canada, however. Voter turnout in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all seen significant declines. Of course, Pammet and LeDuc point out that in analyzing American turnout, one has to take into consideration the deficiencies in the registration process itself. Yet, these examples from abroad clearly show that Canada's voter turnout decline is not exceptional, yet, it is still a cause for concern.

Pammet and LeDuc conducted research interviewing 5,637 Canadians. In this interview, the participants were asked "Voter turnout has been declining in recent Canadian federal elections. In your opinion, why is turnout going down?" This question was asked early on in the interview process, before the respondents were asked if they personally had voted.

The large sample size, the researchers surmise, allow for a very broad, statistically accurate picture of Canadian perception of this subject.

When the sample was divided to separate those who did vote in the 2000 federal election to those who did not, only a few differences were found.

Negative public attitudes toward the performance of political institutions and politicians was the primary reason given for why Canadian turnout to national elections has declined. "The objects of perceived public displeasure run the complete gamut of personnel and institutions, but the most prominently mentioned were "politicians" and "the government," general terms which indicate the broad nature of the attitudes people ascribe to others" (Pammet & LeDuc). Of course, the researchers note that this opinion was not necessarily personally held by the respondents who voted in the election, but that it was likely that the feelings were fairly widespread.

Politicians and the government were the primary focus of discontent in Pammet and LeDuc's survey. Politicians were portrayed as selfish, untrustworthy and unaccountable. They were perceived as lacking credibility and not being true to their word.

Comparatively, government was also seen as betraying the people's trust, as well as accomplishing actually very little.

In the responses received, candidates specifically were mentioned, and these candidates were seen to have the same faults as the more general label of politicians. In addition to politicians in general and candidates specifically, political parties were singled out as well. Some respondents attributed the decline in voter turnout to the challenges people may have in finding a good choice within a party, or even finding it hard to distinguish between the parties that are out there. Lastly, respondents noted that potential voters sometimes had difficulty relating to the issues that had been brought to light by the parties, or that sometimes the proposed policies were simply misguided.

Yet, these responses do not clearly point out the reason for voter decline in recent years. For years, people have complained about the government and politicians. This is not a new development. So, it is difficult to believe that something that has been going on for a very long time would result in a recent decline voter turnout for these reasons. As Pammet and LeDuc note, it would be hard to "find any objective measure of 'decline of quality' of candidates or elected officials, or of the actions of the government."

Yet, perhaps this feeling of discontent is due to a more common feeling that political participation is meaningless. Pammet and LeDuc theorize that this feeling is behind some of the other responses they received. They noted that many people selected what they categorized as 'meaninglessness' answers. These included resopnses such as having a lack of choice in elections. They also indicated that they felt that voting would change nothing. Single party dominance was also a reason given that fit in the meaninglessness category that respondents indicated that they felt there was no realistic hope of an alternative to the dominant government. However, when respondents were separated out for those who did and did not vote in the 2000 general election, those that did not vote were less likely to cite the lack of competition as a reason for declining voter turnout.

A last primary category of responses given for the reason for declining voter turnout was that of 'public apathy'.

According to many people, we are faced with a situation where people just do not care, do not pay attention, are lazy, or do not find the political scene exciting enough. A variation of this explanation is that people see non-voters as simply interested in other things, giving political participation a low priority. Or perhaps it is because those choosing not to vote have not bothered to get the information required to cast a meaningful vote. Some cited attitudes of cynicism, disillusionment, discouragement, frustration and hopelessness. Some specifically targeted young people as responsible for the voting decline, an observation which we will examine closely in this report, but one which does not provide reasons for this being so (Pammet & LeDuc).

Far fewer people under the age of 25 are currently voting, then the number that was voting three to four decades ago (Heard). The youth of the country have spoken out regarding their involvement in the dropping percentages of voter turnout for national elections and it surprisingly echoes those of their older voting fellows as well.

Kotarski and Stambaugh put forth that the reason why young people don't vote is that they are not simply given enough reason to vote.

They interestingly note that those who have recently earned their right to vote grew up primarily in a one-party state. Instead of the traditional two-party system (with often a strong third-party in the mix), since the 1990s, Canada has experienced a one-party monopoly, leading to no apparent choice in the elections.

With no alternative choice as a viable candidate, this has done very little to encourage younger Canadians to vote, or even care, according to Kotarski and Stambaugh, much like the older Canadians.

These two youth suggest that if Canada wants to re-engage the younger voters they need to look at real electoral changes, and go beyond fancy marketing campaigns. They even suggest using proportional representation and an elected senate. Lastly, they surmise that only by given voters, of any age, real value for their individual vote will people begin to take interest again in politics. As long as the only possible outcome for a federal election is the currently dominant party, which in this case is the Liberal Party of Canada, people, both young and old, will continue to be apathetic.

In general, the Canadian public has acknowledged the declining voter turnout and have even identified possible explanations as to why the decline. but, even though the problems are easily identifiable, the solutions are not nearly as easy.

It may be possible that these reasons for decline in voter turnout are due to shifts in perceptions and expectations of the political system, as opposed to…