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


7. Social Capital

Social capital is an umbrella term describing a variety of measures of active participation in the life of the community, as well as attitudes of support for the greater good of that community rather than simply individual gain. As such it is worth investigating here to explore the place of voting in the general mix of other participatory activities. It is sometimes suggested that voting as a political act may not be of as much importance to people as in the past because other activities have emerged to engage their attention; in other words, non-voters may be engaged in other, more relevant political activities. On the other hand, a more skeptical view would expect non-voters to be similarly less active when it comes to other participatory activities and attitudes.

A lengthy exploration of this topic is beyond the scope of this report, but we can take an initial look at the plausibility of the two positions outlined above by simply observing how the voters and non-voters in our sample differ on other participatory activities and attitudes. Since there are several batteries of questions involved, the four tables in this section provide a comparison of means rather than percentage figures in order to display the information in summary form.

Table 35 measures actual group membership in a variety of organizations on a scale of1to3: those answering1actively belonged to the group, 2belong but are not active and3do not belong. On this measure, the participation levels of most people are rather low. However, in the case of each group mentioned, those who voted in2000are more likely to be members than those who did not.

The same general result is apparent from Table36, which gives mean scores (this time out of4)on engagement in a variety of participatory activities. The question asked whether respondents had actually participated in any of the activities in the past year, in the more distant past, whether they might do it, or would never do it. We have seen these activities before in Table30, summarized as "active" and "passive" participation; they are looked at separately in Table36. Regardless of their active (petitions, boycotts, demonstrations, meetings) or passive (letters, calls, Internet) nature, voters are clearly more likely to say they would engage in these acts than non-voters.

Once again, when general media consumption is investigated, in Table37, the voters are more active. They are more likely to read newspapers, listen to news or current events shows on the radio, watch the news on television, and surf the Internet for information than are non-voters. Sometimes these differences are very small (for example, Internet use) and sometimes they are larger (newspapers), but the consistency of the results leaves little doubt that those people who did not vote in the 2000election are less likely to be active in other forms of participation.

To the extent, then, that many participatory acts and group memberships contribute to social capital, non-voters are making less of an overall contribution than voters. Non-voters are not making up for their lack of electoral participation by substituting other "more relevant" political activities. Rather, they are distancing themselves from the public sphere in many ways. Furthermore, Table38shows that they are distancing themselves psychologically from all of the territorially based units of Canadian society. When asked how close they feel to a variety of places, voters feel closer to their neighbourhoods, their towns or cities, their provinces, their country, their continent, and also to the country their ancestors come from. Voting, then, is part of psychological and behavioural involvement with the community. To the extent people are declining the opportunities to vote in Canada, they are also illustrating a lowered commitment to the Canadian community.



Table 35 Level of Participation


Did you vote in the last federal election in 2000? A political party or association A trade union or professional association A church or other religious organization A sports group, hobby or leisure club A charitable organization or service club A neighbourhood association or group Artistic, musical or cultural groups
Yes Mean/3
2.79
2.38
2.15
2.15
2.37
2.55
2.61
Std. Deviation
0.51
0.84
0.88
0.95
0.87
0.77
0.74
No Mean/3
2.93
2.53
2.46
2.30
2.59
2.71
2.70
Std. Deviation
0.28
0.78
0.78
0.91
0.75
0.64
0.67
Total Mean/3
2.87
2.46
2.32
2.23
2.49
2.64
2.66
Std. Deviation
0.41
0.81
0.84
0.93
0.82
0.71
0.71
Participation level 1 "high", 3 "low" see text.



Table 36 Participatory Actions Undertaken


Did you vote in the last federal election in 2000? Sign a petition Join in a boycott Attend a demonstration Write a letter to a newspaper Call-in to a talk show Attend a political meeting or rally Join in a politics-related Internet discussion or chat group
Yes Mean/4
1.83
3.14
3.13
2.99
3.48
2.75
3.60
Std. Deviation
0.91
0.92
0.99
0.91
0.83
1.02
0.75
No Mean/4
2.06
3.39
3.22
3.14
3.58
3.28
3.65
Std. Deviation
0.99
0.82
0.90
0.86
0.72
0.88
0.69
Total Mean/4
1.95
3.28
3.18
3.07
3.54
3.04
3.62
Std. Deviation
0.96
0.87
0.94
0.89
0.78
0.98
0.72
Participation level 1 "high", 4 "low" see text.



Table 37 Frequency of Activity


Did you vote in the last federal election in 2000? Surf the Internet for information Watch the news on television Listen to news or current events shows on the radio Read newspapers
Yes Mean/4
2.47
1.38
1.63
1.68
Std. Deviation
1.19
0.73
0.99
0.89
No Mean/4
2.51
1.70
1.95
2.05
Std. Deviation
1.19
0.90
1.11
0.98
Total Mean/4
2.49
1.55
1.80
1.88
Std. Deviation
1.19
0.84
1.07
0.96
Participation level 1 "high", 4 "low" see text.



Table 38 Closeness of Feeling Towards


Did you vote in the last federal election in 2000? Your neighbourhood Your town/city Your province Canada North America The country your ancestors came from
Yes Mean/4
1.85
1.86
1.94
1.74
2.22
2.48
Std. Deviation
0.82
0.79
0.82
0.90
0.91
1.07
No Mean/4
2.24
2.24
2.28
2.09
2.49
2.66
Std. Deviation
0.96
0.95
0.94
1.01
1.00
1.11
Total Mean/4
2.06
2.06
2.12
1.92
2.36
2.58
Std. Deviation
0.92
0.90
0.91
0.98
0.97
1.10
Closeness level 1 "very close", 4 "not close" see text.