Electoral turnout and turnoff

January 27, 2006

Another federal election is over and the House of Commons appears to reflect what on the surface many voters wanted – an end to 14 years of Liberal rule, and a tight reign on the new Conservative government. But the campaign and the composition of the federal legislature once again raise some nagging questions about the health of our democracy.

Voter turnout, while higher than during the 2004 election, is still at historically low levels. The past three federal elections have resulted in low levels of voter turnout not seen in the past century. This election, 35% of eligible voters simply didn’t think it was worth their effort to vote.

A 2003 Elections Canada study that examined the trend towards lower voter turnout concludes that the decline will continue. It found that a majority of eligible voters feel that voting makes little or no difference.

Part of the reason for this scepticism is our “first past the post” electoral system. Fair Vote Canada, in assessing the 2004 federal election, found that 42% of the votes Canadians cast were “wasted” and that on average 49% of the votes were wasted during the previous five elections. A vote only counts if you voted for the winner in your riding; all other votes, regardless of which losing candidate or party you voted for, count for nothing. Why bother voting when the candidate in your riding who reflects your interests has no chance of winning or if one party has a clear advantage over the other parties? In the end our system stifles democracy by often encouraging people to strategically vote against the worst candidate and not for the best candidate in hopes of “not splitting the vote.”

All things considered it is impressive that 65% of Canadians made the effort to vote.

Canada is out of step with the electoral systems in other industrialized countries. Most countries have made the shift to including proportional representation (PR). New Zealand and Australia are among the countries that recently integrated PR, an electoral system that allocates seats to parties based on the portion of the overall vote that a party receives – if a party receives 15% of the votes cast it receives 15% of the seats. According to Fair Vote Canada, a proportional representation electoral system in this election may, for example, have provided the NDP with double the number of seats (59) and the Greens could have received 12 seats or more instead of no seats. The other parties would have received fewer seats: Conservatives 113 seats (instead of 124), Liberals 93 (instead of 103) and the Bloc 31 (instead of 51).

The current system provides opportunities for well-resourced and connected citizens who have the time to seek nomination. In effect, the political process is out of reach for many who are already disadvantaged in society such as women, aboriginals and the poor.

Not surprisingly, given the additional obstacles many women face, women only make up 21% of the Members of Parliament, compared to being 52% of the population. The newly elected Conservative caucus includes only 14 women (10% of caucus), a sharp drop from the 34 women (25% of caucus) that were members of the outgoing Liberal caucus. Aboriginal Canadians also have low participation rates in our political system, both in terms of voting and getting elected. PR has been shown to be much more conducive to parties proposing a broader diversity of candidates and issues.

What is in essence a relatively homogenous two party system, where only one of two parties is likely to form the government, provides voters with very limited options. It focuses on promoting the interests of the economic elite while ignoring the needs and expectations of the majority. One of the key reasons noted by Elections Canada for low voter turnout is that elections don’t address the issues that are of interest to young voters, aboriginals and the poor.

The current system provides few openings for the discussion of a broad range of issues or the development of alternative resolutions to social and environmental problems. It also leads to a disillusionment with politics and undermines the legitimacy of governments and public policy in our society.

As it stands, for many voters the election had little to do with voting for positive change and addressing the day to day issues they face. Perhaps the most frustrating and agonizing dilemma for many voters in this election was how to vote for an end to Liberal rule while at the same time not electing a Conservative government. In the end we probably got the best that could be expected under our electoral system.

But the reality is that only 36 per cent of the electorate voted for Conservative candidates. Over 60 per cent of voters rejected their platform opting instead for parties that support, to varying degrees, the social programs such as child care that the Conservatives are seeking to dismantle. From a broader perspective Harper’s Conservatives received the support of only 24 per cent of Canadians eligible to vote. Hardly what we could call a ringing endorsement for the fundamental changes the Conservatives are promoting.

If Stephen Harper is really interested in increasing the accountability of government and dispelling Canadians’ lingering fears of a hidden neo-conservative agenda, he should make one of his top priorities electoral reforms such as proportional representation that would keep his and all future governments more representative, responsive and legitimate. It could also insert some democracy into a dysfunctional and outdated electoral system.

A version of this article was published by the Chronicle Herald. John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute.