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Why didn't we vote?

Lowest turnout in 54 years spurs search for answers

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TUESDAY'S voter turnout -- the lowest in 54 years -- has pundits, pollsters and politicians wondering why so many Manitobans decided not to cast ballots in the provincial election.

Two polls released the week before voting day predicted a strong turnout. The polls also suggested the New Democrats would sweep to a crushing victory, with popular support approaching 55 per cent to 57 per cent.

But calculations based on unofficial results released by Elections Manitoba show that only 53.9 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots Tuesday -- a 14 percentage point drop from the 68 per cent turnout in 1999.

Just over 386,000 Manitobans cast ballots Tuesday, a drop of about 110,000 from the previous election.

And although the NDP had 49.9 per cent of popular support -- a historic high for the party -- it nevertheless was not the blowout that had been predicted.

U of W political scientist Deborah Stienstra said the two polls guaranteed a lower turnout.

"When you predict a landslide and people are generally happy, they think, 'Why should I vote?' " Stienstra said.

Scott McKay, president of Probe Research Inc., said he doesn't know if the results of his firm's survey and that of another poll influenced people to the point where a large number decided to just stay home.

McKay said he plans to initiate another survey next week to find out whether the polls influenced the public.

"I've got to know," McKay said. "I need the empirical evidence."

Premier Gary Doer blames those polls, plus other factors, for the low turnout -- a development that he said must be addressed.

Voter turnout

"The perception that we were going to win hurt our voter turnout," Doer said.

The premier said he would like to formally study ways of boosting voter turnout, including lengthening voting hours and using modern technology such as Internet voting.

A review of the historical records shows that voter turnout has consistently been at the 60-per-cent mark or higher in modern times. In fact, the last time voter turnout dipped below 60 per cent was during the 1949 election, when 54 per cent of Manitobans cast ballots.

In the days leading up to Tuesday's vote, political analysts speculated that the two polls could have a variety of possible effects: They could inspire complacency among New Democrats, they could drive Tory supporters to give up, or they could inspire Tory supporters to try to stop an NDP landslide.

McKay said the low turnout hurt the NDP and helped the Tories.

He said the maxim among professional pollsters is that a low turnout is a sign of a contented electorate. But in Manitoba, except for the three-election period from 1941 to 1949 in what are called the coalition years, when the turnout ranged from 50.5 per cent to 55 per cent, voter participation has always been 60 per cent and higher.

During the coalition years, several parties ran under a single coalition banner to form the government. In addition to the low turnout, there were also several acclamations in each of the three elections.

There may have been lower turnouts before 1900, but record-keeping was sometimes spotty in the province's early years.

Raymond Hebert, a political scientist with College Universitaire de Saint Boniface, said he's convinced the polls contributed to the lower turnout and hurt the NDP.

"Both on Tuesday and during the coalition, people knew what the outcome was going to be, so many of them didn't bother to vote," Hebert said.

"In that respect, the polls (in this election) were the coronation for the NDP, and in a paradoxical effect, they altered the outcome of what they were predicting."

Many people who didn't vote said it was because pre-election polls convinced them their ballot wouldn't make a difference.

Terry Clarke, an NDP supporter, said he usually votes, but he didn't get a break at work to go to the polling station on Tuesday and taking his children to baseball took priority that night. He doesn't regret his choice.

'Done deal'

"I was too busy," he said. "I thought it was a done deal anyway because of the polls and what you read in the paper."

Electrician Rick Baltimore used to turn in a blank ballot each election to protest what he considers a lack of options. This year he didn't even bother to turn up at a polling station.

"I'm 100 per cent disgruntled with the political system. Nothing ever changes, no matter who you vote in," he said.

"They don't listen to you; they just take your money."

At 18, Amrit Saran was old enough this year to vote for the first time. But she says she didn't bother, leaving voting up to her parents, who still support her financially.

"I don't really care. It doesn't affect my life right now... I don't go to school, so I don't pay any tuition fees. I don't own a house, so I don't pay taxes."

-- with files from Dan Lett, Patti Edgar

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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