Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Shrinking the ballot box
Voters in western democracies too busy to, well, vote
OTTAWA — Voters in Afghanistan’s capital city awoke Sept. 18 to the sound of rocket fire.
It was election day and insurgents terrorized the populace with more than 33 bombings and 60 rocket attacks in cities all over the country.
It was an organized attack, intended by Taliban forces to keep Afghans at home and out of the polling stations.
To some extent, it worked.
Voter turnout was lower than the year before. More than 20 people were killed as they attempted to vote. Election workers were murdered as they delivered ballots. Security forces were killed trying to keep the attackers at bay.
And yet still, millions of Afghans managed to cast a ballot.
Some travelled many kilometres to Kabul, expected to be the safest place to vote.
More than 2,100 coalition soldiers -- 152 of them Canadian -- have sacrificed their lives to give Afghans the chance to vote.
Election results won't be known for weeks and low turnout and widespread reports of fraudulent voting have already created strong doubts about the legitimacy of the election.
But hope is strong that somehow, someday, a vote in Afghanistan will signal democracy and freedom have prevailed.
More than 10,000 kilometres away, democracy and freedom are entrenched in Canada.
Voting without violence is a privilege Canadians have enjoyed for more than a century.
Yet, it's something we do in increasingly smaller numbers every time we're given the chance. Work, kids, even picking up the dry cleaning take precedence over choosing our government.
And that's a big problem.
In 2008, 58.8 per cent of Canadians cast a ballot in the federal election. It was the first time federal electoral turnout dropped below 60 per cent.
Canada's chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, said Canadians surveyed overwhelming said they didn't bother to vote because of competing priorities.
"When you start looking at those who don't vote, 57 per cent told us it was not really convenient," said Mayrand.
Declining voter turnout is a trend across the developed world. From western Europe to North America and even Australia, where voting is mandated by law, fewer and fewer people bother to cast a ballot.
That means governments are elected based on the desires of a shrinking number of people. It's government by a small fraction of the people making decisions for all the people.
When Gary Doer won his third majority government in May 2007, he seemed to walk away with a huge affirmation from Manitoba voters. The Manitoba NDP increased its seat count for the fifth consecutive election and was just two points shy of breaking through the 50 per cent barrier in popular support.
But while the election results showed Doer and company to be supported by nearly one in every two voters, when looking at how many people voted, the reality was not quite as rosy.
Only 56.76 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot. More than 320,000 people who were registered to vote chose not to.
It meant Doer was elected not by one in two Manitobans, but by about one in four.
The current federal government was elected in 2008 with 37.7 per cent of the vote, or about two in five actual voters. But really, the Conservatives were the choice of just one in five registered voters.
Across the whole population those figures are probably even worse. They don't take into account the number of eligible voters who aren't on the registered voters' list.
"When you reach the point when more than half your citizens are totally outside political life, it's a serious problem," said Henry Milner, a politics professor at the University of Montreal and author of The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts.
"More than half of all citizens are on another planet when it comes to the world around them," he said.
"I am worried."
At the current rates of voter turnout decline, both Canada and Manitoba will see their turnout drop below 50 per cent in the next two decades.
In the 2008 federal election, 23.7 million Canadians were registered to vote. Just 58.8 per cent of them cast a ballot, Canada's lowest voter turnout ever. Although the number of registered voters increased by more than 600,000, the number of people who actually voted fell by nearly one million.
In the last 20 years, the number of Canadians registered to vote grew by more than 34 per cent; that's six million people. At the same time, the number who did vote grew by a mere 4.9 per cent.
Manitoba has among the worst voting turnout records in Canada across all age groups at both the federal and provincial level. Provincially, only Alberta has had a lower average turnout in provincial elections over the last three decades. Federally, Manitoba's voter turnout has been among the lowest three provinces in each of the last four elections.
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Manitoba junior cabinet minister Steven Fletcher is an anomaly.
The third-term Conservative MP for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia is just 38 years old, but already he's a veteran politician with a lifetime of political involvement.
That came by design.
For as long he can remember, Fletcher's parents ensured their kids were exposed to government and politics. They read newspapers and talked about issues they raised at the dinner table. When it was time to go to the polls, they took their kids with them.
"I remember going to Shaftesbury High School when I was a kid and thinking it was cool and creepy being in the school when it was empty of kids," said Fletcher. "It was a big deal to be there."
Since he turned 18, Fletcher has not missed a chance to vote and he believes strongly his family emphasis on it is in part the reason why.
"You've heard of Take Your Child to Work day? Well, I'd like Take Your Child to Vote day," said Fletcher. "If a kid is engaged in political discourse at an early age, they are much more likely to vote."
As the minister of state for democratic reform, Fletcher is the man in charge of trying to improve democracy in Canada. Improving voter turnout is one of his chief assignments.
To that end, he has introduced legislation to add an entire additional day of voting during federal elections. The bill, which has been introduced before but has never been debated, could increase turnout three to five per cent, Fletcher predicts.
Fletcher is appalled at the lack of knowledge Canadians have about their system of governance.
"I was speaking to a first-year university political science class, and people were talking about the president of Canada," said Fletcher.
These were students who chose to study political science and one might expect to be a little bit more knowledgable than others about politics, Fletcher noted.
In a survey of U.S. and Canadian young voters, Milner found the political knowledge of young voters in both countries to be exceptionally low. He also found links between the level of political knowledge and the likelihood one voted.
Although two-thirds of the respondents to the survey claimed to follow what was going on in government at least occasionally, the average score was 2.12 for Americans and 2.89 for Canadians out of seven.
Nearly half of Canadians could not choose who -- citizens, residents, taxpayers or legal residents -- has the right to vote in Canada. The correct answer is Canadian citizens. Only one-third could name a federal cabinet minister and his or her portfolio.
Milner said more sources of information are available than ever before, but it's actually easier for young people to avoid reading them. That's particularly true because young people don't read newspapers as often as their parents and grandparents.
"Even people who may not be that interested in politics will at least meet some of it when they read a newspaper," he said.
Elections Canada lists young Canadians' declining involvement and interest in politics as the overarching reason for the drop in voter turnout. After each election, the agency analyzes turnout, and every election, fewer and fewer first-time voters opt to go to the polls.
Each successive generation votes in smaller numbers than the one before. In 2008, more than two-thirds of registered voters over the age of 55 cast a ballot compared to about half of voters between 18 and 35.
But the real proportion of young people who vote is even lower. Elections Canada argues that voter turnout must be viewed in terms of the number of people eligible to vote, not in terms of those who register to vote. Young people make up the largest group of eligible voters who do not register to vote. Thus, when the total number of young people eligible to vote is considered, the turnout among young voters is a mere one in three.
First-time voters are also declining in successive elections. In 2008, Canadian citizens between 18 and 20.5 years old were eligible to vote in their first federal election. Only 35.6 per cent of them did.
In Manitoba, that number was 20.4 per cent, the lowest first-time voter rate among all provinces.
Younger Canadians not only know less about politics, they care less. They do not embrace, as their parents and grandparents do, that it is a citizen's civic duty to vote.
Mayrand said older voters are more likely than younger ones to say they voted when they hadn't, a suggestion that, among older voters, the sense it is one's obligation to vote is much higher.
They are embarrassed to admit they didn't cast a ballot. Young people don't have that same concern, Mayrand noted.
Mayrand said much study has gone into the problem of low voter turnout, which plagues all Western democracies, albeit at different levels. Even in emerging democracies after the first election or two, turnout starts to decline, he said.
One approach is to make it more convenient to vote. Elections Canada is taking steps toward that, Mayrand said, adding more polling stations and more advanced polls.
The downside to that is the turnout to advanced polls has increased, but the overall turnout hasn't. He suspects people who would have voted anyway decided to vote early.
Elections Canada is also hoping to launch a pilot of electronic voting, likely via the Internet, in a byelection within three years. It's expecting to launch an online registration system before then.
The latter project could add more young people in particular as youth are least likely to be registered through conventional enumeration. They also tend to move a lot, and the system could allow them to update their address information online keeping them on the voter's list regardless of where they live.
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Chris Adams, a politics professor at the University of Manitoba and vice-president of Probe Research, said low voter turnout casts doubt on the legitimacy of government. It breeds apathy among an electorate who feel less like the government represents their views. That in turn leads to an even steeper decline in turnout.
Adams noted a citizen's sense that her vote matters plays a significant role in whether she will vote, which means when elections are competitive or a candidate is particularly engaging, more people vote.
In the last Manitoba election, the two ridings with the tightest races -- margins of victory under 100 votes -- had among the highest voter turnout. Conversely, five of the 12 ridings with less than 50 per cent turnout had margins of victory of more than 2,500 votes.
Adams said an analysis of one of Probe's political polls found the groups least likely to have a voting preference were young people and mothers with less than high school education and with kids still at home. More than one in three women in that category didn't know who to vote for.
However, Elections Canada data shows overall, women generally vote at the same or slightly higher rates than men do across most age categories.
Manitoba's rate reflects a large aboriginal population, which is young and the most disengaged and disadvantaged group in the province.
In Rupertsland riding, where 93 per cent of the population is aboriginal, the 33 per cent turnout in 2007 was the lowest of any riding. On some reserves, fewer than one in 10 cast a ballot.
Winnipeg's Point Douglas is the city riding with the largest aboriginal population at 36 per cent. It had a 40 per cent voter turnout, the lowest in the 2007 election.
Voter anger at a sitting government or excitement about a particular candidate can also drive people to the polls.
In Great Britain, voters were compelled by a growing distrust of the Labour Party, an MPs' expenses scandal and anger about the conflict in Afghanistan. Voter turnout actually improved more than four points to 65 per cent, the best turnout in 13 years.
In 2008, when Democratic Senator Barack Obama ran for the presidency, his personal charisma lit a fire under young voters -- particularly minorities.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported more than two million additional black voters and two million addition Hispanic voters cast ballots. In particular, young black voters saw a significant jump, to 55 per cent, making black voters between 18 and 24 the highest voter turnout in that age group.
"I would have been less hopeful (about improving voter turnout) were it not for Barack Obama and that election," said Adams. "That sure energized people, particularly people who are marginalized."
Milner however is not convinced the Obama phenomenon had an overall impact or will last beyond one election.
Although voter turnout grew for young voters and minorities, he noted, overall turnout was virtually the same as it had been four years earlier.
"If Obama with his personal skills and campaign skills was unable to (improve turnout overall), I'm not sure what can," he said.
Voter turnout, federal elections, Canada (Manitoba turnout)
1867 - 73.1 (n/a)
1968 - 75.7 (76)
1972 - 76.7 (74)
1974 - 71 (70)
1979 - 75.7 (77)
1980 - 69.3 (69)
1984 - 75.3 (73)
1988 - 75.3 (75)
1993 - 69.6 (68)
1997 - 67 (63)
2000 - 61.2 (62)
2004 - 60.9 (56)
2006 - 64.7 (62)
2008 - 58.8 (56)
Average turnout, 1945 - 2009 71.7 per cent
-- Elections Canada
Voter turnout, provincial elections, Manitoba
1969 64.42 per cent
1973 78.34 per cent
1977 75.59 per cent
1981 72.39 per cent
1986 67.91 per cent
1988 73.97 per cent
1990 69.05 per cent
1995 69.20 per cent
1999 68.10 per cent
2003 54.17 per cent
2007 56.76 per cent
12: number of provincial ridings in Manitoba where fewer than half registered voters cast a ballot in 2007
31: number of provincial ridings in Manitoba where fewer than half the population over 18 cast a ballot in 2007
57: total number of ridings in Manitoba
-- Elections Manitoba
Voter turnout, municipal elections, Winnipeg
1971 60.70 per cent
1974 34.80 per cent
1977 40.10 per cent
1980 38.30 per cent
1983 52.60 per cent
1986 34.00 per cent
1989 34.00 per cent
1992 58.35 per cent
1995 53.50 per cent
1998 53.60 per cent
2002 48.70 per cent
2004 58.77 per cent
2006 38.20 per cent
-- City of Winnipeg
Provincial voter turnout by province, average between 1980-2009
New Brunswick 75.8
Northwest Territories 69.7
Nova Scotia 68.2
-- Elections Canada
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2010 H1