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Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters


Much of the data we have explored in this report leads to the conclusion that voting rates will likely continue to decline in Canada. The voting rates of generations entering the electorate in the last two decades, and particularly since 1993, are substantially lower than those of previous generations. While "life cycle" effects help to increase the low initial participation rate of all generations, they have not brought those who entered the electorate during the Mulroney or Chrétien years up to the levels of the Trudeau-era entrants. And even those Canadians, now in their 40s and 50s, vote at lower rates than older citizens. There has been a long-term secular decline in the voting participation of successive generations of Canadians, one that will be very difficult to reverse with short-term, small-scale reform measures.

Added to the problem of generational decline is the effect of declining party competition, at least as viewed by the public. Part of the answer to the emerging problem of voter turnout has been a growing perception of the meaninglessness of electoral participation. This meaninglessness is felt in two senses. The first is the lack of a strong opposition that would place the overall outcome of a federal election in doubt, and spark interest in the campaign. The second is the lack of party competition at the local constituency level in a substantial number of ridings. While one can never predict with certainty that this situation is likely to continue, there are few signs that the Canadian party system is about to become more competitive in the near future. Unless some unexpected developments change this situation, there is no reason to expect that people will start voting at substantially higher rates. The upcoming leadership changes in many of the major parties may spark some renewed interest in the next election, but this is likely to be temporary unless the fundamental competitive situation changes.

This rather pessimistic conclusion is not to suggest that nothing can be done, either in the short- or the longer-term, to encourage participation, or to render the voting process more accessible. We believe that the evidence assembled in this report indicates that further efforts, which might have some beneficial impact, could be made in the areas of education and administration of elections.

First, with regard to education, we may recall the evidence in Table 43 that a majority of those interviewed for this report believes that improvements in education and information to prospective voters are the best methods of interesting young people in politics and elections. Increased attention to civics education in the schools, particularly as it pertains to social and political participation, will convey a positive message about the benefits of interacting with others in the fulfillment of civic duties. Elections Canada supports this educational function by providing information, and election-related materials, to schools and to other groups that request it.

When it comes to the subject of electoral reforms, there is no widespread movement for the wholesale replacement of our current electoral system, or other major electoral reforms. However, we were impressed in this study with the receptivity of many Canadians to changes in the electoral system, particularly in regard to the introduction of proportional representation. There is an active debate in Canada at the moment on these matters, which is likely to continue and intensify. To the extent that this debate raises issues of the requisites of democratic citizenship, and the most desirable institutional structures to allow its exercise, the possibility exists for a rekindling of public interest in electoral participation.

Finally, with regard to election administration, there is considerable evidence from this study that more needs to be done to ensure the registration of the maximum number of citizens, particularly young people becoming eligible by virtue of age, in the National Register of Electors. In addition, the predominance of reasons for not voting in this study relating to lack of time or absence from the constituency lead to the observation that new technologies could help to provide solutions to these problems. In particular, it appears that the public would support the introduction of a system of Internet registration and information modification, and Internet voting. This support is particularly apparent from young people who have not voted in recent elections but who expressed a desire to do so using the computer. While it is impossible to estimate with total accuracy how many people would make use of such Internet facilities, especially among those who currently do not go to the polls, there is no reason to dismiss the possibility that such an administrative change would have a beneficial effect on the turnout rate.