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


8. Electoral Reform

Three questions in the survey investigated attitudes toward electoral reform. One hypothesis to explain some of the decline in electoral participation is that the population has become disenchanted with the first-past-the-post electoral system, since that system can create situations where certain parties are not able to win the number of seats in Parliament commensurate with the percentage of votes they receive. Advocates of proportional representation electoral systems argue that such systems give a more accurate picture of support for political parties in the legislature. They thus maintain the interest and involvement of the population by giving fair representation, and by providing hope that smaller parties can elect members even though they have no hope of forming a government by themselves.



Table 39 Satisfaction with Present Electoral System, by Vote in 2000 (percentages)


  Voted in 2000? Total
Yes No
Very satisfied
32.8
24.9
28.7
Somewhat satisfied
47.9
55.5
51.9
Somewhat dissatisfied
12.3
12.8
12.6
Very dissatisfied
7.0
6.7
6.9
 
100.0
100.0
100.0
V = .091    p < .001



Table 40 Support for Introduction of Proportional Representation by Vote in 2000 (percentages)


  Voted in 2000? Total
Yes No
Very supportive
29.0
20.5
24.5
Somewhat supportive
42.4
50.8
46.9
Somewhat opposed
17.7
19.5
18.7
Very opposed
10.9
9.2
10.0
 
100.0
100.0
100.0
V = .110    p < .000



Table 41 Support for Compulsory Voting, by Vote in 2000 (percentages)


  Voted in 2000? Total
Yes No
Very supportive
22.3
11.9
16.7
Somewhat supportive
25.5
20.5
22.8
Somewhat opposed
22.0
23.9
23.0
Very opposed
30.2
43.7
37.4
 
100.0
100.0
100.0
V = .177    p < .000



Table 39 shows the answers when people were asked whether they were generally satisfied with the present Canadian electoral system. The question was preceded by a short preamble, which explained that, in Canadian federal elections, "people vote in an electoral district, and the candidate with the most votes wins." This wording ensured that people focused on the operations of the current electoral system when answering the question. The results show that there is only a fairly small minority (less than 20 percent) that expresses dissatisfaction with the current system. The bulk of the population expresses itself as "somewhat satisfied". Those who voted in 2000 are somewhat more likely to declare themselves "very satisfied" than those who did not. Non-voters are no more likely than voters to be dissatisfied with the current electoral system.

Satisfaction with the plurality electoral system, however, does not mean rejection of its main alternative. Table 40 shows that a quarter of Canadians are "very supportive" of introducing a proportional representation (PR) system for Canadian federal elections, and another group of almost half the sample (46.9 percent) is "somewhat supportive" of bringing in PR. (These calculations leave aside a group of about 10 percent of the study who said they did not know, or that they didn't want either this one or the current one, or that "it depends." Such a degree of indecision is not unusual when introduction of an unfamiliar institution is proposed.)

The pattern of answers to these two questions suggests that the public does not want to dispense with the current plurality electoral system, but at the same time is interested in exploring elements of a proportional representation system. This might result in support for a "mixed" electoral system, as practiced in Germany or New Zealand, since such a system allows some of the members of the legislature to be elected under plurality from constituencies, and some by PR. However, support for such a system, or other variants, was not explored directly in this study.

Another reform of electoral law, which has been suggested to remedy the turnout decline, is the introduction of compulsory voting. Such a law, in force in Australia, Belgium, Brazil and elsewhere levies a fine if citizens do not cast a ballot. When Canadian respondents were asked if they favoured such a law, Table 41 shows that it was not very popular. A majority would be opposed, often strongly opposed, to compulsory voting. Understandably, the non-voters of 2000 are more opposed to this than the voters.

We investigated, through multiple regression analysis, the possibility that the predictor variables we have been using (for example, in Table 20) could relate in an important way to support for these electoral reforms (data not shown). In general, the relationships are weak, and very little variance is explained. For example, the package of predictors used in many of the regressions in this report explains only 2 percent of the variance in who supports the introduction of PR. There are a few weak patterns: PR is more favoured by those born outside Canada, women, people with higher incomes, and those who have low degrees of political efficacy.