Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Voter turnout under the microscope

The Democracy Project

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OTTAWA -- Fixed-election dates aren't just making it easier for voters to know when they're expected to go to the polls.

They are allowing political science researchers a better chance to figure out what makes voters tick.

Or in many cases, not tick at all.

This fall, one of the largest election-study teams in Canadian history will be probing beneath the surface of the elections in Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

With voter turnout in most provinces a stubbornly low figure, the goal of the study, says principal investigator Jared Wesley, is to find out not just why people don't vote, but why they do. The study will also look at what people expect from their democracy and how engaged they are in the election process.

A survey of 5,000 people in the five provinces will take place during the campaign. Voter turnout in the provinces will also be used in the study.

"We are looking at whether people have really high standards for democracy or whether in some cases they may have really low standards," said Wesley.

Now a political science professor at the University of Alberta, Wesley began dreaming up the idea while an instructor at the University of Manitoba. It was not long after that the Manitoba government voted to establish fixed election dates in 2008 that Wesley began talking with others in his area about the benefits of planning a study to coincide with an election.

Normally, researchers are scrambling when an election is called.

Over the course of a few weeks, the group realized in the fall of 2011 there would be five provincial and two territorial elections, allowing for a broad study of voters, political parties, the media and other aspects across different regions in Canada.

The group includes nine researchers from six universities, including the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg.

Among the topics studied will be why voters in a province like PEI are always more motivated to vote than in a province like Manitoba. What drives people to vote when they are in a riding where the outcome is unlikely to change from the last election? Do events during a campaign, such as a scandal, impact turnout?

Wesley said of particular interest will be a look at whether people think politicians, the media, experts or campaign officials are meeting their expectations and whether their concerns are actually founded.

For example, if voters complain the parties are all promising the same things, the team will look at how true that is.

If voters complain they couldn't find information about certain issues or promises or policies, the team will look to see how difficult it is to get that information.

The initial results will start coming in to the researchers within two weeks of each election. Wesley expects to begin releasing snippets of data through blogs and news releases by Christmas.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 A8

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