A History of the Vote in Canada
Voter Turnout Since Confederation
The history of the vote in Canada is the history of an almost constantly expanding right, despite temporary detours along the way. By the time of the 1921 general election, Canada had achieved almost universal suffrage. Expansion of the franchise is evident in the figures on electoral participation – often referred to as voter turnout. The number of registered electors rose from 361,028 at Confederation to over 23 million in 2006 (see Table 1). In 1867, the electorate represented just 11 percent of the population; by 2006, this proportion had grown to over 75 percent.
Although expansion of the electorate is partly the result of population growth, the electorate also grew significantly following changes in electoral laws to broaden the franchise. For example, the enfranchised proportion of the population increased from 25 percent in 1911 to more than 50 percent in 1921, following the enfranchisement of women and the removal of property requirements for voters. Increases in electoral participation have also resulted from legislative and administrative changes intended to simplify registration and voting procedures, thereby facilitating exercise of the franchise.
In the 39 general elections and three referendums held since 1867, an average of 71 percent of registered electors exercised the franchise. Voter turnout, which is calculated based on the number of individuals registered to vote, has ranged from a low of 44 percent in the Prohibition plebiscite of 1898 to a high of 79 percent at the general election of 1958.
Significant variations in voter turnout are shown in Table 2. Turnout rates have generally been higher in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick than in the other provinces. With the exception of the 1958 general election, average voter turnout in Newfoundland and Labrador has consistently been below that of other provinces.
Studies of voting behaviour in the past two decades, often supported by extensive public opinion polling, have suggested several factors that help to explain variations in turnout. Regional variations, for example, have been explained in terms of electoral competitiveness, with higher rates of turnout being associated with a higher proportion of competitive electoral contests. Studies have also shown that socio-economic status tends to influence voter participation: electoral participation increases with levels of education and income. In addition, members of some occupational groups have been found to participate at lower rates than other groups in society.
Characteristics such as race and ethnicity, language and religious affiliation have been found to affect electoral behaviour, but the rate of voter turnout among women and men has tended not to differ significantly. Age also affects turnout. Until recently, the finding that turnout is lower among youth than among older people was believed to be largely the result of a "life cycle" effect: young people's propensity to vote was found to increase as they aged. Recent studies indicate that this explanation no longer holds. Not only are young people participating less than their elders, their willingness to participate appears to be declining over time.
Following the June 2004 election, Elections Canada began a unique study to determine actual voter turnout among different age groups by analyzing samples of voters lists. The findings showed that first-time voters (those between 18 and 21½ years of age) had a 39 percent voter turnout. This made them about 4 percent more likely to vote than those eligible to vote for their second time (those between 21½ and 24 years of age).
Elections Canada is conducting a similar study after the 39th general election to find out if any clear trends emerge.
The relative stability or mobility of the population has been identified as a determinant of voter turnout. Electoral districts with a disproportionately mobile population tend to have lower rates of turnout. Other predictors of political participation include political interest, political knowledge and strength of party identification. The most interested and informed individuals are more likely to vote or participate in the political process in other ways. Because interest in politics can influence turnout, the issues in a given election campaign can be important indicators of potential participation.
Finally, the electoral process itself can influence voter turnout. Qualifications determining eligibility, the registration process, the available methods of voting, and information about electoral rights and procedures – all can have an effect on turnout. Illness and hospitalization or absence from home for other reasons are often cited as reasons for not voting, as are weather conditions at various times of the year. Electoral officials cannot change the weather, but some obstacles to voting can be tackled through administrative and practical means. In fact, some changes in the law originated as practical innovations in election administration.
| Date of election/
|Population||Number of electors on lists||Total ballots cast|| Voter turnout 1
|August 7 – September 20, 1867 2||3,230,000||361,028||268,387||73.1|
|July 20 – October 12, 1872||3,689,000||426,974||318,329||70.3|
|January 22, 1874||3,689,000||432,410||324,006||69.6|
|September 17, 1878||3,689,000||715,279||534,029||69.1|
|June 20, 1882||4,325,000||663,873||508,496||70.3|
|February 22, 1887||4,325,000||948,222||724,517||70.1|
|March 5, 1891||4,833,000||1,113,140||778,495||64.4|
|June 23, 1896||4,833,000||1,358,328||912,992||62.9|
|September 29, 1898 3||4,833,000||1,236,419||551,405||44.6|
|November 7, 1900||4,833,000||1,167,402||958,497||77.4|
|November 3, 1904||5,371,000||1,385,440||1,036,878||71.6|
|October 26, 1908||5,371,000||1,463,591||1,180,820||70.3|
|September 21, 1911||7,204,527||1,820,742||1,314,953||70.2|
|December 17, 1917||7,591,971||2,093,799||1,892,741||75.0|
|December 6, 1921||8,760,211||4,435,310||3,139,306||67.7|
|October 29, 1925||8,776,352||4,608,636||3,168,412||66.4|
|September 14, 1926||8,887,952||4,665,381||3,273,062||67.7|
|July 28, 1930||8,887,952||5,153,971||3,922,481||73.5|
|October 14, 1935||10,367,063||5,918,207||4,452,675||74.2|
|March 26, 1940||10,429,169||6,588,888||4,672,531||69.9|
|April 27, 1942 3||11,494,627||6,502,234||4,638,847||71.3|
|June 11, 1945||11,494,627||6,952,445||5,305,193||75.3|
|June 27, 1949||11,823,649||7,893,629||5,903,572||73.8|
|August 10, 1953||14,003,704||8,401,691||5,701,963||67.5|
|June 10, 1957||16,073,970||8,902,125||6,680,690||74.1|
|March 31, 1958||16,073,970||9,131,200||7,357,139||79.4|
|June 18, 1962||18,238,247||9,700,325||7,772,656||79.0|
|April 8, 1963||18,238,247||9,910,757||7,958,636||79.2|
|November 8, 1965||18,238,247||10,274,904||7,796,728||74.8|
|June 25, 1968||20,014,880||10,860,888||8,217,916||75.7|
|October 30, 1972||21,568,311||13,000,778||9,974,661||76.7|
|July 8, 1974||21,568,311||13,620,353||9,671,002||71.0|
|May 22, 1979||22,992,604||15,233,653||11,541,000||75.7|
|February 18, 1980||22,992,604||15,890,416||11,015,514||69.3|
|September 4, 1984||24,343,181||16,774,941||12,638,424||75.3|
|November 21, 1988||25,309,331||17,639,001||13,281,191||75.3|
|October 26, 1992 3, 4||20,400,896||13,725,966||9,855,978||71.8|
|October 25, 1993||27,296,859||19,906,796||13,863,135||69.6 5|
|June 2, 1997||27,296,859||19,663,478||13,174,698||67.0|
|November 27, 2000||28,846,761||21,243,473||12,997,185||64.1 6|
|June 28, 2004||30,007,094||22,466,621||13,683,570||60.9|
|January 23, 2006||30,007,094||23,054,615||14,908,703||64.7|
*Presenting these figures involves several challenges. The data contained in official election results since Confederation have not been reported consistently. In the case of an election by acclamation, for instance, the number of registered electors on the lists for that electoral district was included in the total number of registered electors for some elections, but not for others. In other cases, lists of electors were not prepared for some districts. In Prince Edward Island, no lists were prepared in the entire province for several elections.
Moreover, a number of electoral districts were dual-member constituencies until 1966. As each elector could vote for more than one candidate, the reported number of votes cast (valid and rejected ballots) was higher than it would have been in a single-member scenario. Voter turnout figures (including those presented in this Appendix) have been corrected where appropriate: to estimate turnout in these cases, the total number of votes cast in a plural-member electoral district was divided by the number of members elected from that district. (Scarrow 1962)
- Percentages are calculated based on the number of registered electors.
- In early elections, polling took place over several weeks or even months.
- A referendum.
- Does not include Quebec, as Quebec conducted its own referendum.
- This percentage rises to 70.9 when the number of electors on the lists is adjusted to account for electors who had moved or died between the enumeration for the 1992 referendum and the election of 1993. A separate enumeration for the 1993 election was carried out only in Quebec, as the 1992 electoral lists were reused in all other provinces and territories.
- Originally published as 61.2 percent, the 2000 turnout was adjusted to 64.1 percent, after normal maintenance of the National Register of Electors that removed the names of deceased electors and duplicates arising from moves.
Source: Reports of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (1867–1917); reports of the Chief Electoral Officer (1921–2006); unpublished summary data prepared by Elections Canada; R. Pomfret, The Economic Development of Canada (1987); H. A. Scarrow, Canada Votes (1962); Contact (1985).
| Date of election/
|August 7 – September 20, 1867||77||71||69||75||73|
|July 20 – October 12, 1872||59||80||67||72||86||51||70|
|January 22, 1874||–||67||66||62||71||70||58||70|
|September 17, 1878||65||79||73||67||68||51||70||69|
|June 20, 1882||–||71||73||67||70||32||68||70|
|February 22, 1887||86||81||77||68||69||46||56||70||70|
|March 5, 1891||77||75||69||66||63||42||47||64||64|
|June 23, 1896||74||68||70||66||61||50||40||71||63|
|September 29, 1898 3||46||40||41||46||47||32||30||38||45|
|November 7, 1900||–||77||73||70||70||65||69||76||77|
|November 3, 1904||–||73||77||70||77||69||56||72||72|
|October 26, 1908||–||73||78||69||68||81||–||–||54||87||70|
|September 21, 1911||–||83||78||71||69||79||63||65||53||83||70|
|December 17, 1917||76||80||89||76||79||79||70||76||83||56||75|
|December 6, 1921||79||69||64||75||63||65||67||63||67||83||68|
|October 29, 1925||76||70||61||72||65||68||57||57||75||78||66|
|September 14, 1926||84||72||68||71||64||77||70||57||71||80||68|
|July 28, 1930||89||83||78||76||69||72||81||66||73||82||73|
|October 14, 1935||80||76||77||74||74||75||77||65||76||70||74|
|March 26, 1940||78||70||68||66||69||74||77||63||76||82||70|
|April 27, 1942 3||57||45||63||76||64||67||59||65||69||62||58||71|
|June 11, 1945||81||72||78||73||75||76||85||73||80||63||75|
|June 27, 1949||58||85||75||79||74||75||72||79||69||69||76||74|
|August 10, 1953||57||83||72||78||69||67||59||74||63||65||63||76||67|
|June 10, 1957||52||85||81||81||72||74||74||81||73||74||63||89||74|
|March 31, 1958||79||88||84||85||79||79||80||82||74||76||74||90||79|
|June 18, 1962||72||90||84||83||78||80||77||85||74||78||72||88||79|
|April 8, 1963||69||84||82||81||76||81||78||83||79||80||73||88||79|
|November 8, 1965||66||88||82||80||71||77||74||80||74||75||76||86||75|
|June 25, 1968||68||88||82||80||72||77||76||81||73||76||69||87||76|
|October 30, 1972||63||86||80||77||76||79||74||79||76||73||73||79||77|
|July 8, 1974||57||80||74||71||67||74||70||72||67||72||61||67||71|
|May 22, 1979||60||81||75||74||76||78||77||79||68||75||70||74||76|
|February 18, 1980||59||79||72||71||68||72||69||71||61||71||67||69||69|
|September 4, 1984||65||85||75||77||76||76||73||78||69||78||68||78||75|
|November 21, 1988||67||85||75||76||75||75||75||78||75||79||71||78||75|
|October 26, 1992 3||53||71||68||72||4||72||71||69||73||77||70||70||72|
|October 25, 1993||55||73||64||69||77||67||68||69||65||67||63||70||70 5|
|June 2, 1997||55||73||69||73||73||66||63||65||59||66||59||70||67|
|November 27, 2000||57||73||63||68||64||58||62||62||60||63||52||64||54||61|
|June 28, 2004||49||71||62||63||61||62||57||59||59||63||47||62||44||61|
|January 23, 2006||57||73||64||69||64||67||62||65||62||64||56||66||54||65|
– Data not available
- Percentages are calculated based on the number of registered electors.
- The provinces entered Confederation as follows: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, July 1, 1867; Manitoba, July 15, 1870; British Columbia, July 20, 1871; Prince Edward Island, July 1, 1873; Alberta and Saskatchewan, September 1, 1905; and Newfoundland, March 31, 1949.
- A referendum.
- Quebec conducted its own referendum in 1992.
- See Table 1, note 5.
Source: Reports of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (1867–1917); reports of the Chief Electoral Officer (1921–2006); unpublished summary data prepared by Elections Canada.
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