Canadian Voter Apathy – A Problem for Democracy

Voter apathy

Media reports are peppered by complaints of voter apathy. The Calgary Herald, for example suggests that the reason is poor leadership and obscure issues; however, others speculate the problem is endemic and worsening. In a CBC interview, George Stromboulopoulos spoke to CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, and asked about his point of view regarding the apparent decrease in Canadian voter engagement.

Mansbridge, who has covered every Canadian election since 1972, indicated that the trend was troublesome and that voting was a civic responsibility. He also spoke of witnessing people in other countries weeping as they cast their ballots, in joy of their newly acquired right to vote, while remembering the sacrifices made to win the privilege. The number of Canadians voting in Federal elections has declined over the years. Speculation as to why include: people’s lives are too busy; young people are not been educated and invited to vote; Canadians are cynical about the politics and politicians; citizens of a Canadian democracy have the right not to vote. Regardless of the excuse, declining numbers of electors are resulting in government that does not reflect the will of the people.

Voter Turnout Statistics

According to the National Post, national voter turnout has been gradually declining for over 30 years. In 1958, 79.4 percent of Canadians participated and, in 2008, only 59.1 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. The lowest turnouts were in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta, with the highest turnout in PEI and New Brunswick. Only 25 percent of 18 to 25 year-olds bother to vote. The Conference Board of Canada reveals that declining voter turnout is also common amongst Canada’s international peers, where Canada has a “C” rating compared to the “A” awarded Australia. Belgium, Sweden and others. The UK and USA are also rated at “C” with only Switzerland rated lower with a “D”.

The Case for Mandatory Voting in Canada

Senator Mac Harb details the case for Compulsory Voting. Considered in Canada, in 2004, Bill S-22 made it to second reading, but it died shortly afterwards. Senator Harb argued that compulsory voting was being used with great success in Australia and other nations and that citizens did not resent the legislation. Compulsory voting may be viewed as a necessary limitation on freedom in the same manner as seat belt regulations or taxes. The term “mandatory” is actually a misnomer because voters would have the option of selecting “none of the above” or they could cast a blank ballot. The bill died because parliamentarians appeared to believe that imposing the vote upon people would be a violation of their rights and freedoms.

Lowering the Voting Age

Other strategies for increasing turnout have been suggested. In order to engage youth, The NDP are suggesting lowering the voting age to 16. This strategy might engage youth earlier, but may backfire because in creating a larger electoral base, who do not vote, the voter turnout percentage rates will drop even further.

Proportional Representation

Michael Ignatieff was asked about his stand on proportional representation during a Winnipeg rally, on March 30, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press. He indicated that he was open to discussion, but felt the idea required a lot of study to determine whether or not it would be beneficial. The advantage to proportional representation is that it gives power to the majority of votes attributed to a particular party and it may increase voter interest by making them feel like their vote counts. The problem is that areas with large population concentrations, will acquire power, while less populated regions become poorly represented.

Communication and Election Technology

Better use of new technology is becoming increasingly popular. Politicians are using social media more, particularly as it was seen recently to have huge impact in the American national election. E-voting has been used successfully in some jurisdictions and could be applied to a federal election. Technology may be an effective strategy for informing tech savvy voters and making voting convenient and more accessible. The CBC’s Vote Compass is an interesting and unique use of technology used to engage voters.

Reaching out to Youth

Reaching out to youth with education and relevant issues is also essential. The web site Apathy is Boring is an excellent resource on this topic. Significantly, they declare that young people are already aware that voting is a privilege and “guilt tripping” is unproductive.

The Solution to Voter Apathy

Democracy relies upon the engagement of citizens and their participation in elections. Should too few opt to not vote, the foundations of democracy are weakened. If less than 50 percent of voters cast a ballot, the elected representative is empowered by a minority. With low voter turnout, the will of the people is uncertain; however, the country will get the government it deserves. A fractious, cynical unproductive parliament is what Canadians have now and given the apparent apathy and cynicism of the electorate, it is very likely that the results of this election will yield a government of similar character. Why should legislators care about democracy if the people don’t, and who do politicians really answer to if they are elected by a minority of eligible voters?

The issue of voter apathy is having critical impact upon democracy and must be seriously addressed. The fundamental problem goes far beyond boring leaders and obscure issues. Valuing democracy and appreciation of the right to vote is diminishing as citizens of modern, wealthy nations such as Canada become complacent. Of all the strategies indicated above, the only one ensuring a positive result appears to be compulsory voting, as seen in Australia. Apparently attitude can be legislated. For example, consider how feelings towards seat belt regulations and non-smoking rules have helped to change social values. Voter apathy is problematic, but there appear to be effective solutions.