Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Canadian Elections: No thanks, we'd rather not vote

Updated December 10th, 2012

Now that Canadians are being subjected to further election irregularity news relating to potential fraud during the 2011 election, I thought I'd take a look at voter turnout since Confederation.  Fortunately, the information is readily available on the Elections Canada website.

There have been 44 elections and referendums since Confederation in 1867.  Here's a table showing the date of the election (note that early elections took place over a period of weeks or months), the population of Canada that year, the number of electors on the list, the total votes cast and the voter turnout as a percentage:

According to the Voter turnout hit a low of 44.6 percent for the referendum of September 29th, 1898.  This is a wee bit misleading because this was a referendum rather than an election.  As history goes, this referendum is rather interesting because it was held to determine whether Canada should impose Prohibition and it ended up being a turning point in the issue of the temperance movement in Canada.  In this referendum, the Prohibition side won but Prime Minister Laurier refused the will of the people who voted 51 percent in favour of Prohibition because such a small majority of the total number of adult Canadians (51 percent of 44.6 percent) were actually in favour of Prohibition.  It’s interesting to see how the Prime Minister of the day actually stepped in to overturn what a slim majority of voters wanted.

Back to the subject at hand.  In regular elections, voter turnout hit a high of 79.4 percent in the election of March 31, 1958 and a low of 58.8 percent in the election of October 14, 2008.  Here is a map from Elections Canada showing the percentage of voter turnout by riding for the May 2011 election:

In 2011, the region with the highest overall voter turnout was Northern New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  The province with the lowest voter turnout was Alberta, particularly the north and east portions of the province.  I find this particularly interesting because Alberta is the home province to both the Reform/Conservative movement and Canada’s right-leaning Prime Minister.

While voter turnout in some elections during the 1890s and 1920s was in the mid- to low-60s, the trend of voter turnout since the 1980s has been strongly downward.  Here's a chart showing average voter turnout for all elections by decade (excluding the 2011 election) since the 1950s:

There is no doubt that the trend of voter engagement in the process of electing Canada's federal governments is headed lower, from a peak of 77.2 percent over 4 elections in the 1960s to a low of 61.3 percent in the new millennium when the 2011 election is included.  While many Canadians are griping because of the frequency of federal elections in the last decade (2000, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011), things were no better in the 1960s when four elections were held in the years 1962, 1963, 1965 and 1968.  In fact, over a period of less than 10 months between June 18, 1962 and April 8, 1963, there were two elections and yet 79 percent of eligible voters exercised their franchise in both elections, among the highest in Canadian political history.  I can hardly imagine that happening today.

According to the statistics, in the November 1988 election, 13.281 million Canadians voted out of a total country-wide population of 25.309 million with a total of 17.639 million eligible voters.  In the May 2011 election, 14.823 million Canadians voted out of a total country-wide population of 31.612 million with a total of 24.258 million eligible voters.  Despite the fact that over the 30 year period, the number of eligible voters rose by 6.619 million for an increase of 37.5 percent, only 1.542 million additional Canadians participated in the voting process for a pathetically small increase of only 10.4 percent.

The problem with low voter turnout compounds when Canada has a succession of minority governments.  Here is a table showing the Official Voting Results for the 2011 election by Party:

The Conservatives received 39.4 percent of the valid votes cast.  Since only 61.1 percent of Canadians voted, they actually received the approval of only 24.1 percent of eligible Canadian voters and, with that insignificant approval rating, went on to form a majority government.  

When a Party can run Canada after receiving approval from less than one-quarter of the country's eligible voters, the political system is showing unmistakable signs of stress.  Sure, we often hear the mantra "If you don't vote, you can't complain" but the unfortunate part of that is that it doesn't matter whether we vote or not, our MPs and their leaders seem to develop a case of impaired hearing when they arrive on Parliament Hill.  What is happening is that a subset of a minority of Canadians is ruling the country.

I honestly don't know how to solve the problem of low voter turnout.  Perhaps part of the apathy we feel is because we sense that it really doesn't matter what we think, our elected officials will press forward with their agenda despite our protests.  Perhaps we have become disillusioned about our country's political process when we watch snippets of Question Period where we see grown men and women acting like elementary school children in a playground at recess (my apologies to elementary school children everywhere for the comparison) with the vague notion of scoring a few political points at the expense of the other.  Perhaps its the "I must win so you must lose" mentality that has pervaded the House; rather than seeking compromise, MPs and Ministers seem to go out of their way to create controversy and dissent.  

It is such a shame that Canadians are becoming increasingly disillusioned, disenfranchised and disappointed with Ottawa.  More is the shame because it is our inattention to the political process that is allowing the federal governments of both major Parties to foist their disagreeable agendas on Canada in an attempt to remake the country in their own image. 

In closing, I would ask one thing of Canadians.  Please voters, pay attention to what is happening in Ottawa and involve yourself in the process and remember that Canada does not belong to any particular political party, politician or Prime Minister.  Paying attention to our political process is the only way that we can keep our Canada from slipping away.


  1. Canada does not belong to any particular political party, politician or Prime Minister.

  2. Ideally, I'd prefer the Swiss political system of direct democracy despite their recent issues. However, Canada's best and easiest shot at correcting her democracy is for a two-round (runoff) voting system whereby if the incumbent didn't win a majority in the first round, then a second round of the top two in the first round would be held. Writing letters to politicians is a waste of time. Rather, start writing papers, essays, blogposts, articles and anything else you can to make it an election point addressing the question: "Does Canada need a two-round voting system?"

  3. I have voted in every Federal Election for the past 50 years but have become increasingly frustrated with the past 5 Federal Elections. I live in a riding where the current incumbent has a 100% chance of winning. It doesn't matter that the incumbent has been involved in at least three known issues of 'breach of trust' he will still win easily. My vote has not made any difference for the last 8 years. I will still vote this time because I see it as my duty; but I now already that it will have no impact.

  4. Well said, the partisan rhetoric has risen to an almost deafening level. So many Canadians are simply tuning out the conversation because it amounts a black and white argument with too much misinformation around. Too many people either pick the side that yells the loudest or opt out of the process all together. Not only is it important to get out and exercise our democratic right (and privilege) to vote. But we need to make it a priority to get out and vote with an informed choice. Which ever party you support really know what they are planning to do and trust that they will work in your and our countries interest. Kudos to the author for a very good argument on voter involvement.

  5. "The province with the lowest voter turnout was Alberta, particularly the north and east portions of the province."

    This is the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, with the largest city being Fort McMurray. I would guess that the low turnout has something to do with the transient nature of the population there - perhaps they cast ballots back home, or felt that they were only going to be there for a short time.

  6. There is a American theory that posits that low voter turnout indicates that "all is well"; meaning; "I can afford to skip voting because things are going well enough in the world". Canada has generally had higher voter turnouts than is common in America with Canadian voters enduring boring candidates and elections and yet turning out anyway. Stanfield comes immediately to mind. One theory has it that the cultural value of "civic duty" explains the higher Canadian turnouts. An explanation of the situation right now might be that the large number of new Canadians have not embraced "civic duty" as a concept. Another might be that young people are alientated by the stranglehold of old white guys on political power. Whatever it is, chest thumping will not alter this significant trend in public life. Possibly proportional voting might allow people to feel that their voices are being more heard and are not being lost in the "winner take all" election system we have now. Another is that internet and social media are filling a social need that was once filled by community based political/social interaction. What are pollsters and other social scientists saying about this phenomenon?

  7. Here's an interesting statistic:

    In Mr. Harper’s own riding of Calgary Southwest, only 52,996 out of 90,756 voters exercised their franchise for a turnout of 58.4 percent, just below the national average. Of those who voted, 72.96 percent voted for Mr. Harper meaning that he received the support of only 42.6 percent of all eligible voters in his riding.

    I think one of the big problems in our system was pointed out by Norm Hunter. I live in a riding where we've had the same, tired MP for 18 years. I am against the current nomination system where the incumbent basically gets a nomination by acclamation rather than actually having to fight to prove that he or she is up to the job.

  8. "I live in a riding where we've had the same, tired MP for 18 years. I am against the current nomination system where the incumbent basically gets a nomination by acclamation rather than actually having to fight to prove that he or she is up to the job."

    Well, and how does he not get acclaimed? By having someone run against him. So, this is a perfect example of why participation matters (yes, this is my hobby horse). First you need someone who feels capable to step up and ask for the nomination. Then you need people in the riding association willing to vote for a change. Neither one of those things will happen if people turn away since its the same old tired guy. But the problem will never improve--until the old tired guy dies, I suppose.

  9. Jenn

    Having been involved in the nomination process, it's a generally agreed on principle that the incumbent is not challenged. Why? Don't ask me! You're right, that has to change if we want to get voters more involved.

  10. Here's another thought.


    As it rose, a single Canadian identity fell. Tolerance increased including for status quo of slow incremental change. As long as Canadians are getting their slow incremental change, which is what all the parties, that get votes, are promising.

    Curiously, did you check the voter turnout stats for provincial elections? Do they follow the same trend?

    I checked Ontario's and the numbers show no trend either way.

    Perhaps people are finally figuring out that the Feds have few topics that are actually within their jurisdiction.

    John M Reynolds

  11. Thanks for the great info.
    We need more Independent Newspapers.
    Post & Sun media are posting a lot of trash & lies.
    And why is Universal Health Care not being talked about?

  12. Politicians like it when we dont vote. Do not let the politicians keep you from voting. People have died so we can vote. if you dont like any of them them do as my dad taught me. he was a D-Day veteran and he made us vote. If we didn't like anybody we went into the booth and wrote that on our ballot. "We dont like any of you" we spoiled our ballot but we refused to let a politician take our right to vote just because they were not worthy. A spoiled ballot sends a strong message. Believe it and vote.

  13. You will not get a better voting system than what we have. Sure there are different types of voting systems but each have their pros and cons! The problem is NOT the voting method, the problem is how government governs. I accept that minorities are real! What I do not agree with is that parties coined as opposition have no say or limited say. In the current MINORITY government less than 40% of the population voted Conservative yet the so called 'opposition' parties do not get a real chance to represent their constituents views as part of Canada's going forward legislation yet they have seats in the House. The government has the say in what gets tabled because they get the most 'days' in Parliament! In my opinion we need to change the governing method such that the number of days is alloted by percentage of the seats garnered in the House. That means if the Conservatives get 49% of the seats then they get 49% of the 'days' in Parliament to set their agenda and bring forward legislation, even though they may be the party with the most number of seats. The same holds true for the Bloc, the Greens, the NDP, and the Liberals. Since the Greens received 6% of the votes but no seats in the House of Parliament they have no 'days'. By changing the way governance is done it will make it fairer for ALL Canadians that the party they voted for has an opportunity to affect the laws/legislation within Canada. If there is a MAJORITY then the same rules would follow. If the Conservatives get 58% of the seats in the House then they would get 58% of the time. The other parties would not be locked out as they would also get their percent of time based on their percent of House seats! It would work the same regardless of MINORITY or MAJORITY Parliaments!

  14. It makes no flipping difference what we do.

  15. well said anonymous! well said.