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RM Issue #031015

Let's think more deeply about voter turnout

By JOHN IBBITSON
Monday, October 13, 2003 - Page A13


Although official numbers won't be out until later this week, Elections Ontario believes the voter turnout for the Oct. 2 provincial election was 57 per cent, the second consecutive election in which less than 60 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot.

That beat Manitoba, where Gary Doer was returned to power in June with only 54 per cent of the vote. In other recent elections, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick clocked in at a more respectable 70, 68 and 65 per cent, respectively, but in all these jurisdictions, turnout was down.

And the last federal election mustered a mere 60-per-cent turnout. Since these percentages only refer to registered voters, and many voters might never have made it onto the voters list, actual turnout of eligible voters in some of these elections might have dropped below 50 per cent.

Why is voter turnout declining?

All sorts of reasons get offered: lack of civic education; the breakdown in the bonds of community; the cynical, facile nature of modern political discourse and the media's coverage of it; and the declining importance of the state in the lives of its citizens.

One popular supposition is that our first-past-the-post system of electing members to constituencies is alienating voters, who never see the popular vote accurately reflected in the composition of their legislatures.

This is one reason why British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick are all considering a move to alternative systems, based on some form of proportional representation. And it's true that turnout in countries that employ PR is generally higher than in constituency-based systems. But even in the PR countries, voter turnout is in decline.

Maybe we need to look at other possible reasons for the increasing disengagement of Canadian citizens from the political process. Herewith, then, a few questions to consider:

Is immigration a factor? Prior to circa 1970, the majority of immigrants to this country came from Europe. Some were accustomed to liberal democracy; others valued democracy so highly that they fled oppressive regimes.

But immigration now is heavily weighted in favour of third-world countries without democratic traditions. Are these new arrivals less likely to vote because they have had less exposure to democratic institutions? Could that be why Atlantic Canada, which has relatively few immigrants as a percentage of total population, has higher voter turnout than Ontario?

Delving into the 1999 Ontario election results revealed that the five ridings with the highest visible-minority populations in the province (all of them in Toronto or its environs) had a voter turnout averaging 4 per cent below the provincial average. Turnout in the five ridings with the lowest visible minority populations, all in the North, averaged 2 per cent above.

But don't rush to judge; Alberta has the worst voter turnout in the country, but only 15 per cent of its population is foreign-born.

Is history a factor? Turnout is particularly dreadful among younger voters. The old say the young just don't care anymore, the young say the old just don't get it. 'Twas ever thus.

Here's another possibility: Perhaps the young don't care because what historian Philip Bobbitt calls the Long War (1914-1990) is becoming distant history. That great cataclysm pitted liberal democracy against authoritarian monarchism, then fascism, then communism. All those touched by that war know the price that was paid in defence of the right to vote.

But how do you make anyone born after 1970 understand?

What if voter turnout isn't declining at all? Thousands of enumerators once went door-to-door at each election. Today, we use a permanent voters list, which is updated based on income-tax information. But at the last Ontario election, when one canvasser knocked on doors with the voters list in hand, "I was astonished to discover on my lists a three-year-old, a five-year-old, several 16-year-olds, a 17-year-old, numerous instances of both previous and new owners being listed at the same address, and of course, a number of deceased individuals."

If the children and the deceased didn't show up to vote, they would be counted as having not voted, driving down the turnout number.

There are other questions that need asking. Although calling for a public inquiry generally should be grounds for flogging, someone really should take a good, long and well-researched look at the factors affecting voter turnout, before the provinces start throwing out their current electoral systems in favour of alternatives that might be equally ignored.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca



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