A decade ago, Canadians went to the polls for the third time in five years, after a prime minister sought to upgrade his minority. Voter turnout was 61.1 per cent, among the lowest in the country’s history.
Last Monday, Canadians went to the polls for the third time in six years, after a prime minister sought to upgrade his minority. As of late Thursday night, with only a handful of uncounted ballots left, voter turnout was 62 per cent.
It’s useful to put this year’s expected, yet still disappointing, low turnout in perspective.
One might want to blame the pandemic, and the fact of fewer polling places. Elections Canada scrambled to find locations, and there were six per cent fewer advance and election-day voting locations compared with 2019 – when turnout was 67 per cent.
And turnout did plummet in some ridings with fewer places to vote. Toronto-Centre, for example, had just one-fifth the number of voting locations as in 2019. Liberal candidate Marci Ien faced the Green Party leader, yet turnout fell to 57 per cent, down from 66 per cent.
But take a look at Vancouver-Centre, which had a third more locations this time than in 2019. Turnout in 2021 also plunged, to 53 per cent from 61 per cent.
Making it easier to vote is something Canada has to do. This page has long been a proponent of an official Election Week, rather than a singular election day. Having many voting days is a good thing, as is making sure there are many conveniently located voting locations. But the stakes of an election also have an effect on turnout. This election had no driving reason beyond the governing party’s ambition, and the vote came two years after the last one. It may be no surprise if some people tuned it all out.
The pandemic may have also discouraged some – but remember last November in the United States? The stakes were epochal, and two-thirds of eligible Americans cast a ballot – the highest participation rate in more than a century.
In Canada, from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, turnout usually was in the mid-70-per-cent range. It then began to slide and by 2000 hit the low 60s. Studies wrestled with the question of why. The answers weren’t entirely clear, but blame was pinned on a seeming lack of interest among younger people.
Turnout remained low for several elections thereafter, but the blame-the-young theory blew up in 2015. Turnout shot up to 68.3 per cent, the best in 22 years. It was an unusually long campaign of 78 days, with numerous debates, high passions and high stakes. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won in part by drawing out a wave of new, younger voters, starting with those aged 18-24 but going up to 35-44.
That trend held in 2019. Turnout among 18-24 slipped – but not back to previous lows – and turnout among those 25-44 held up.
This year, fewer voters chose to make their mark. But turnout was also better than widely expected – and higher than in 2004, 2008 or 2011, despite pandemic worries and constraints.
Maybe the real story is not that voter participation fell, but that it didn’t fall all that much.
A pandemic election, so soon after the last, may be the anomaly. The positive trends of 2015 and 2019 suggest that Canadians will come out to vote – if they feel it matters. Too many elections, in too short a time frame, may dilute that motivation.
Beyond that, the fact remains Canada needs to do more to make it easier to vote.
A 36-day campaign is too short. A single English-language debate is too little. We’d suggest at least a 50-day campaign – the current maximum and an average duration more typical of decades past – would help. More debates, with actual debating, would help. More voting locations would help.
And increasing the number of official, regular voting days would help. There was a bill in Parliament to make the pandemic election day a three-day affair – Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It died when the election was called.
Three days sounds good. Seven would be better. Call it Election Week – with what are now the official and advance polling days all advertised as regular voting days. Plus add some earlier advance voting days. Make it as easy as possible to vote. Canadians will show up, if they’re convinced of the stakes.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Green Party leader faced the sitting finance minister in the election.
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