Multiple, Complex Reasons for Low Voter Turnout

It’s no secret that Canadian voter turnout is lower than it should be. Voting rates in the May 2011 elections was a hair over 61% according to Elections Canada. While that was higher than the 58.8% turnout in 2008, it is abysmal compared to the 70% to 80% regularly reported from 1957 to 1992. The story goes deeper than that, as well. The Globe and Mail reported that only 49 percent of electors cast ballots in its 2011 provincial elections.

A healthy democratic process needs the participation of its citizens. Closed political systems develop as much from voter apathy and disengagement as from corrupt politicians. The more actively people participate, and the more engaged they are, the better the system does.

So why is it that fewer people are voting, at a time when politics are having ever more impact on people and their lives?

Returning to the Globe and Mail, we discover several reasons.

“Twenty-eight per cent said they just weren’t interested. Twenty-three per cent were too busy. The rest said they were out of town, ill or didn’t like any of the candidates.”

Twenty-eight per cent. That is an astonishing figure. Even if a poll by one paper isn’t representative of the bigger picture, it is still dismaying to see that so many people simply lack an interest in the process governing their country. In an age when social and environmental justice are becoming ever more vital concerns, there are simply those who do not care, or understand enough to make them care.

Those who were too busy are more understandable. It is hard to take the time to vote when you have to take care of family members, work in a critical job, or any number of other important obligations. It does raise an alarming point about the effort involved in voting however, that it can be something that so many people are too busy to make time for.

This point is expanded further in The Daily by Statistics Canada. A significant reason given among youth voters for not participating in the 2015 elections was difficulty with the voting process. They reported difficulty demonstrating their residence, and that they were frequently left off the voters list. Being of age and able to vote, but held back by the process itself, is unacceptable in a forward thinking democracy.

Then we have the following article from CBC News, explaining why voting among First Nations tribes in particular is so low.

In short, the specters of colonialism and institutional racism lead many First Nations voters to simply abstain from the political process. To quote the article directly, “It is quite commonly known that “Indians”, as they were called half a century ago, were not allowed to vote until July 1, 1960. Actually, they could vote, but they had to become “disenfranchised” first, which meant giving up their special Treaty status. And so it became the common practice that aboriginal people did not take part in “white man’s voting” in the 30 or so federal elections which were held prior to 1960.”

This disdain for a government that has severely mistreated its First Nations citizens, a government that still fails to investigate crimes committed against indigenous peoples with due urgency, becomes an institution in itself. Trends and beliefs are passed on to the next generation, and they grow firm with time. As a result, many First Nations voters prefer activist politics, in the form of demonstrations and the dissemination of literature.

There are signs the trend could reverse. Participation in the 2015 federal elections was notably high. Youth voters increased their participation in the process in 2015 was a heartening 67% compared to 55% for the 2011 elections, according to The Star’s analysis of Statistics Canada’s report. However, the Star makes the point that in the United States, youth turnout for the 2008 elections was up, but had dropped by the 2012 elections. A single election’s increase does not make a trend.

In short, participation in the voting process is one of the most important parts of a healthy democracy, yet Canada’s participation remains low. Learning the reasons why may help us reverse the last decades’ frightening trend.