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Canadians Don’t Count

May 12, 2011


In her book entitled The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters Diane Coyle that a top priority of the world’s wealthiest nations must be ensuring that we get a true picture of long-term economic prospects. She argues that current measurement systems are woefully lacking when it comes to accounting for national wealth in terms of natural and human resources. The world’s wealthiest nations including Canada are faced with inextricably linked crises: extremes of wealth and poverty not seen since the 19th century, the constant threat of rising temperatures of the global financial meltdown, climate change and a crisis in credibility even in democratic nations as governments and businesses are widely distrusted. She argued that there was a heightened need for governments to engage citizens in a process of debate about the difficult choices that lie ahead and rebuild a shared commitment to the future of our societies (PUP book review).

The total number of valid votes for the 2011 Canadian federal election was 14,720,580. c.14.7 million people (61.4%) voted out of 23,971,740 [c.24 million registered electors] (Heard)

Of the c. 24 million registered electors 5.8 million people (c. 25%) voted for Conservative Party and 4.5 million people (c. 20%) voted for NDP-New Democratic Party (Heard)

There are a number of causes for lack of turnout.

Henry Milner (2007) argues that Canadian youth, in particular, are not being provided with adequate political knowledge which is regarded by Europeans for example, as the basis of meaningful political participation.

Because “turnout” is simply the percentage of the people on a list of eligible voters who actually vote, the reliability of that measure depends entirely on the accuracy of the list of eligible voters. In most of the second half of the 20th century federal election lists were compiled by door-to-door visits. Many people were not included on the lists who would otherwise have been entitled to vote. People who had no interest in voting could simply refuse to answer questions when the enumeration officials visited a neighbourhood ( Heard).

Voter turnout in Canada began to decrease in 1993. See Andrew Heard’s article

Is this a crisis in democracy?

Heard argues that historical only about 70% of eligible voters turned out for Canadian elections from 1867 onwards. However by 2011 with all the improvements in mobility and communication is 61% reasonable? Perhaps it is.

It is difficult to track down and enumerate eligible voters and it is difficult to get people out to vote. For example, twenty percent of the electorate is affected by demographic changes over the course of a given year (16 percent address changes, 2 percent new 18-year-olds, 1 percent new citizens, and 1 percent deaths). http://www.irpp.org/choices/archive/vol9no7.pdf

In an article published in the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s journal Choices, Jerome H. Black (2003) noted that a 61.2 percent for the 2000 election eclipsed the record low set in 1896. Why are we pleased that our voter turnout this year went “up” to 61%?

“The fact that voter turnout in Canada has dropped so precipitously in the last few elections is another reason why an emphasis on participation is warranted. A dramatically new pattern, however, has been established over the course of the last three elections. Participation, as officially recorded (votes cast as a percentage of registered voters), dropped to 69.6 percent for the 1993 election, underwent another decline to 67.0 percent for the 1997 contest and then plummeted to 61.2 percent for the 2000 election. The last figure was the subject of much commentary, not only because it helped confirm the negative trend since 1988, but also because it established a new record for the worst turnout ever documented in a federal election, eclipsing the record low of 63 percent set in 1896. Not surprisingly, the drop in electoral participation has been regarded as being serious enough to prompt a fair amount of soul-searching as to its meaning for the nature and legitimacy of Canadian democracy. Chief Electoral Officer Kingsley appears to have had this in mind when he mused aloud about the possible wisdom of instituting compulsory voting in Canada.”

While citizens in other countries are sacrificing everything to earn the right to vote in democratic elections, is it true that fewer Canadians voting?

2011 The 2011 election saw a rise in voter turnout compared to the 2008 elections, with the preliminary estimate of 61.4. This rate may rise modestly as the initial figures do not include some special ballot votes ( Heard).

2008 The voter turnout in 2008 dropped to 58.8%, the lowest percentage of registered voters ever recorded for a national election in Canada ( Heard).

2007 “Young Canadians’ political knowledge is low – only slightly higher than the level of their American counterparts and, therefore, low compared with Europe. This suggests that European nations are better at disseminating the information and skills needed to turn its young people into participating
citizens, and raises the question of whether Canadians should look there, rather than to the United States, in seeking to address the issue. Henry Milner concludes that emulating the stress in the US on involvement in nonpartisan voluntary group activities as we seem to be doing could prove less effective than an alternative approach taken by high civic literacy countries in Europe, whereby political knowledge is regarded as the basis of meaningful political participation. It stresses measures that raise the level of political knowledge by making the environment of young people rich in political information, targeting especially those lacking the resources to gain access to it on their own. It looks to government programs in education, media support, political party financing, information dissemination, and so on, and, unlike the US, does not try to isolate civic education from partisan politics (Milner 2007) .”

2005“As voter turnout and other forms of conventional democratic participation have recently declined, especially among young people and quite acutely in Canada, this relationship has become critical. A previous IRPP study by Henry Milner (2005) shows that political knowledge, or the lack of it, was central to this decline (Milner 2007) .”

2004 While much has been made of the recent decline in voter turnout, it is important to view the historical turnout trends for a full perspective ( Heard).

2003 “The supplementary use of enumeration measures would naturally add to the cost of registering voters. But this is the trade-off that must accompany any kind of serious commitment to facilitating participation. For the longest time, ensuring unfettered access to the vote was the dominant principle governing the employment of the registration method in Canada. This commitment to access wound up receiving rela tively little consideration during the process that culminated in the establishment of the National Register. With very little systematic thought given to what might be lost in terms of participation, the financial savings were accorded more weight than was warranted. It now appears that the time is right to revisit the matter, and to ensure that the discussion and the policy choices reflect the ideal that registration regimes should primarily operate to uphold the key democratic principle of facilitating the participation of all citizens (Black 2003).”

2000 The establishment of a permanent National Register of Voters for federal elections has not been entirely reliable either. For example, the official voter turnout figure in 2000 is 61.2%, but Elections Canada later realized that this was based on a voters’ list that was artificially inflated by almost a million duplicate names. The actual turnout figure is now estimated to be about 64.1%. See the CBC News article about this updated information ( Heard).

1997 The traditional approach in Canada was door-to-door enumeration carried out just before an election. In 1997 this approach was abandoned in favour of a permanent voters list, formally known as the National Register of Electors. Regularly updated with information from a variety of government data sources, the permanent list is now used to generate the preliminary list of electors when an election is called, updates undertaken throughout the campaign period. http://www.irpp.org/choices/archive/vol9no7.pdf

1993 Much has been made of the general decline of voter turnout in recent Canadian elections. The historical record presents a useful perspective on this trend. It is certainly true that the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots has declined- – especially since 1993 ( Heard).

1988 “Up until the 1988 contest, voter turnout over the postwar period averaged around 75 percent and while this figure is low relative to turnout in most other longestablished democracies, Canadian turnout did not drift noticeably upwards or downwards over the period.” http://www.irpp.org/choices/archive/vol9no7.pdf

1896 Record low participation in federal election of 63 percent.

Webliography and Bibliography

Coyle, Diane. 2011. The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters. Princeton University Press.

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