Monday, October 17, 2011

Does lower voter turnout always favour incumbents?

When Ontarians were called to the polls this month, fewer than half of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot and the incumbent Liberals were returned to power. Turnout dropped in both Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador as their governing parties were re-elected. So does lower turnout always favour the incumbent?

You can find out by reading the rest of the article on The Globe and Mail website here.

Anyone who reads this site must be a political junkie, and I imagine that 95% of my readership votes. Undoubtedly, you all share my disappointment when turnout is so low. We're all excited when election day comes, but to an increasing number of Canadians (and, apparently, a majority of Ontarians) the whole process is a big yawner.

This puts the Occupy protests in an odd context. The protestors claim to represent the 99% of people who are under the tutelage of the richest 1%. But throughout the weekend I couldn't help but think if the proportion of those 99 percenters who hadn't voted in the 2011 federal and Ontario elections had voted, they alone could have elected a government. An Occupy Party with 100% of that vote would have been swept to power.

Of course, things are never so simple, and I imagine that most of the 40% to 50% of people who haven't been voting are also the same people who are unlikely to attend a protest.

Two questions come to mind. Firstly, what do we need to do to increase voter turnout and, secondly, is that something we want to do?

Though Elections Ontario tried to make voting as easy as possible by having advance voting booths open for a good part of the campaign, turnout dropped. So it does not seem that making it easier to vote (i.e., via the Internet) is sure to increase turnout. The problem is increasing interest, and the political parties are partly to blame for that. Also to blame could be our school systems - I don't recall taking a civics class when I was in high school.

Mandatory voting is an option, and isn't as outlandish as it may sound. Australians have it, Andrew Coyne loves it, and Canadians already have to fill out a census form. That's mandatory, so why not voting?

But we all have a friend or family member who is woefully uninformed about politics. Is an uninformed voter worse than someone who doesn't vote at all?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but you can have it out in the comments.


  1. I find the liberty of not voting to be more significant in itself. It would lose some of its legitimacy if it were forced

  2. Low voter turnout in the last two NL elections has seemed to benefit the Liberals in particular. The PCs in 2007 were in the mid to high 70's in polling, and finished with just under 70%. This election was a little different, the last CRA poll was spot on with the NDP but underestimated the Liberals by 3% points and overestimated the PCs by the same.

  3. I actually tend toward the opinion that most protesters of the nature of the Occupy protesters AREN'T voters - the idea being that the 18-25 age range participates more in the political arena through activism and protest than through the democratic process, which through a couple of surveys has been proven.

    In other words, the easiest way for the Occupy protests to affect change - through change of government - is apparently not being utilized, especially by the youth portion of it (which is a good chunk).

    Makes you wonder what these people are actually thinking. They probably think the political system is broken and unable to affect the change they want, yet one of the main reasons it's broken and not useful for them is because they're not there to make use of it. Kind of a self-defeating circle, isn't it?

  4. On mandatory voting, it has to be coupled with a 'non-oftheabove' option. Otherwise those with no opinion wouldn't be free to express it, and you can encourage people who don't want to support any candidate to spoil their ballot. The issue arises if a plurality of folks choose no opinion/none of the above...does that make the government illegitimate and anarchy as the government of choice? :P

    On your turnout pro-con incumbency, you have to compare those stats to overall rates of re-election and look for statistical signifcance.

  5. I remember taking civics in high school (in Ontario). It was a half-credit course that really taught us nothing. For goodness sake, we spent two of our classes watching The Lord of the Flies. The civics curriculum needs a massive overhaul. I would hope that would increase turnout. It would also have the side benefit of making the public less easily bamboozled by lies about how our system functions such as we heard from Harper during the coalition crisis.

  6. Why not offer people a $5 tax credit for proof of having cast a ballot. I'll bet that if voting = $5 - turnout would soar to about 95% instantly.

  7. I don't think Elections Ontario made it that much easier for people to vote. Walking somewhere else isn't easier, as far as many people are concerned.

    In an age where we almost require an app to remember to breathe, ease of use comes down to the ability to either text or press a button on the cell phone.

    I know that sort of voting is fraught with other issues. However, the ease of voting potential has been nowhere near reached yet.

  8. I AM a political junkie in Ontario, in a competitive riding, and I could barely bother to vote this time around.

    The three main parties could hardly do a better job of colluding to reduce voter interest if they tried. They largely agreed on the direction of most major files; debate was focused on minutia, as that was all that separated the parties. Fanatical message discipline prevented issues other than those selected by the parties from being aired.

    If the average voter thinks that the only things at stake in an election are matters of communication style and the colour of tie or blazer that the Premier wears, why would they bother to vote?

  9. I understand people have the freedom not to vote. But people who did not vote, should not complain about government policies. Eric makes a point when questions how many Occupy protestors managed to vote on the May 2nd and October 6th elections.

    There is a point where lower voter turnout weakens the legitimacy of a government. The Harper Tories received a comfortable majority with 39.6% of the vote with 61% of eligible voters voting. The McGuinty Liberals almost won a majority with 37.6% of the vote and 49% of eligible voters voting. Both the PM and Premier lack a strong mandate to govern when less than 25% of the population voted for their respective parties.

    Mandatory voting would not be a bad idea. Perhaps a tax rebate incentive? There could be a "none of the above" option on the ballot. As long as people are motivated to get out there and make a vote.

    - Maple

  10. Calivan:

    I think the liberty you speak of could be maintained under a system of mandatory voting by the ability for you to reject your ballot, or spoil it.

    That said, I think Eric's point about woefully informed people is the most troubling thing about mandatory voting. I'd like to hope that mandatory voting would force people to care, at least a little bit, but it's still a worry...

  11. I suspect mandatory voting would improve voter education just because I've heard more than one say they don't vote because they don't know enough (I avoid giving sarcasm about how hard it is to visit web sites).

    The biggest issue though has to be a combination of the big 3 parties and the media. During the election I never heard on TV and rarely on radio who the Green Party leader was, let alone their positions on anything. In fact, it was also rare to hear anything about the positions of any party on anything outside of whatever that party sent in to the media that day in a press release.

    If the TV news spent their political time going over positions and contrasting the parties (even if they limit it to the biggest 2 only) during the campaign instead of focusing on how each was doing in the polls it would change everything I think.

    Polls are great to go through (otherwise I wouldn't be here) but the public needs to be educated and that is what the media should be doing instead of hunting for a rabbit race or the latest dumb idea handed out by a politician to gain a 10 second sound bite.

  12. One example of voter turn out going and the incumbent party not benefiting is the 2001 BC election. Voter turn out was higher in 1996 and 2005.

  13. I have long been in favour of mandatory voting but perhaps we need a the ability to do as others have stated and have a 'none of the above' or a write in candidate. If for nothing else to have a metric for how many do not support any party running. It would be like forcing pollsters to present their results with the undecided in the mix. Less misleading for those that aren't sure who they want to vote for.
    I know far too many people that haven't a clue about policies or even who is running during elections. While it is their choice to remain oblivious it does impact those that care about how the country is run.
    I also like to dream that be being assured everyone is voting there can be more discussion by those running on issues that matter to those outside their 'base'.

  14. What SD said...

    If the people who have the chance to win in a given riding only differ by the color of their ties, then how does voting matter?
    Or, phrased another way - if the parties many of these people would vote are always polled below 1%, and there's basically no chance for any non-established party to be represented in any parliament on any level, why would one even bother to vote at all, to support a system that cannot represent many people?
    Or, phrased another way - what's a bigger statement; having given the Greens (for example) 5% of the vote in some riding, or having those 5% out in the streets asking to be heard?
    Or, phrased another way - most people don't have a party that truly represents them, and will vote whatever party is 'the lesser evil'; whichever party is the closest to one's ideals. Looking at it from that point of view, is it better to be a collaborator basically supporting a system because of lack of alternatives; or going out in the streets asking for another one?

  15. @TS, I agree, the half-credit "Civics" class in grade 10 in Ontario's schools is pathetic. If you want to increase voter participation in the future, making that class less pathetic would not be a bad place to start. Maybe they should try letting a 3rd-party craft the course outline, because currently its function seems to be mostly about back-patting and self-congratulation about what a fine system we have. It needs more intelligence.

  16. From the people that I've talked with that didn't vote they either just didn't care, they didn't like any of the leaders or they just couldn't be bothered as they would hear the odd media broadcast or read a local editorial saying that its going to be a minority/majority so why bother my vote doesn't count or why would I vote for that person rather than taking a few minutes every day to read what is going on.

    But now that the news is talking about the increase in hydro I'm sure they'll all have they're opinions now of what should of happened in the election

    Personally on the mandatory voting I'd rather they not vote than go in there and mark down either the first or last canidate on the ballot as some of the fringe parties around here would get a huge boost in support and that concerns me

  17. I spent a few years in Australia, where voting is mandatory (there's a $20 fine), and everyone agreed that it did make people pay more attention. But it's to a limited degree - if turnout is 60%, and of the 40% non-voters perhaps 15% is for "legitimate" reasons and 25% is ignorance+apathy, you can probably only inform half of the latter group. So instead of 60% turnout who are 100% informed (okay, you can stop laughing now... ;) ), you get 85% turnout that is 85% informed [caveat: these numbers are completely drawn out of thin air, but seem plausible]. So the question becomes: how dangerous is it to have a 15% uninformed block? Probably fine, so I think you end up ahead, but the more viable parties there are, the more fragile the result is to those people. And if I'm overestimating how many people will inform themselves if forced to vote, it could become problematic.

  18. The dangerous thing about the Australian mandatory system is that it isn't mandatory. What is mandatory is showing up at the polling place but you don't actually have to vote. Just get ticked off on the voters list. Have several Oz friends and they all say that it really isn't that good.

  19. Everyone keeps turning to the same irrelevant alternatives about voter turnout. Civics classes, mandatory voting, internet voting, social media, party choice, payment -- with the incessant drum-beat about "apathy". Yadda yadda.

    Voter turnout kept going up during the period when governments were actively working to transfer power (and money, power's most routine form) from the ruling classes to the working classes. Government was doing so only to prevent anything more revolutionary from happening and worked very hard to ensure they could transfer as little as possible, as slowly as possible, but they were still transfering power "down".

    That all changed during the 70s. In our Canadian case, with the imposition of wage and price controls (after campaigning against them) and the switch to monetary policy at an "independent" Bank of Canada, government began to actively transfer power back "up". Voter turnout levelled out, but the situation remained in flux until 1989. With the collapse of "Communism", voter turnout collapsed as well. And government turned whole-hog to transferring power back "up".

    Remember that "the ballot" was always a controversial and only instrumental vehicle for mass action. There have always been other vehicles (including "the bullet"). And it was *never* an end in itself (THAT was "bread and roses"). When the ballot reached its limit, much of the working classes started giving up on it - though old habits die hard, so the decline is most apparent generationally.

    Voter turnout MIGHT recover if governments started to systematically transfer power back "down". But, at this stage, it's not obvious that even that would work - and that's leaving aside that governments show every desire to ever-more-radically do the opposite. The slide is nowhere near over and the alternatives have still only just begun to be explored.


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