A Brief History of Canadians Who Don’t Vote

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A man voting in Ottawa, 1962. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4316670.

A man voting in Ottawa, 1962. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4316670.

by Sean Kheraj

Following Monday night’s election results, Canada may have marked a shift in the downward trend of voter turnout over the past twenty-seven years. According to early figures from Elections Canada, 68.5% of eligible voters (17,546,697 people) cast ballots. This is up considerably from the historic low turnout of 58.8% in the 2008 federal election and may mark a reversal of the trend of declining voter turnout, which began after the 1988 federal election. Toronto Star provides a full look at the breakdown of voter turnout in the 2015 election here.

Low voter turnout in Canada did not emerge as a popular concern until the recent past. The average voter turnout from 1945 to 1988 was almost 75% and showed limited variability, dropping below 70% in just two elections. Beginning with the 1993 election, the overall number of eligible voters who cast ballots began a general decline. Average voter turnout from 1993 to 2011 was about 64%.

In November 1989, the federal government appointed the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing to inquire into how Canadians elect members of the House of Commons and the financing of political parties. Volume 15 of its 23-volume report focused on voter turnout. Jon H. Pammett, one of the authors of this volume, found that the population of non-voters in Canadian federal elections changes from election to election. They are not the same group each time. He wrote, “It is generally agreed, therefore, that there is a small hard core of perennial non-voters, numbering perhaps 5 percent of the population at most.” [1] As a result, most researchers at the time attributed voter turnout to particular circumstances of a given election. This may indeed be the case with the 2015 federal election.

Voter Turnout 1867-2015

Other factors that have influenced Canadian non-voters have also included socio-demographic position and political attitudes. Class, occupation, education, and age are all additional factors that have had an influence on Canadian electoral participation. One final factor Pammett and others note is “administrative disenfranchisement,” the ways in which electoral procedures inhibit (but do not prevent) voting.

Post election studies have offered a range of insights into what factors influence Canadians who do not vote. Here is a sample from Pammett’s study that covers the 1974, 1980, and 1984 elections:

Type of reasons for non voting 1974-1985_1

From Jon H. Pammett, “Voting Turnout in Canada” (1991)

As Pammett concluded in 1991, “The general lesson to be drawn from these self-expressed reasons for non-voting is that a substantial portion of those who do not participate in any given election are away, sick, busy or unenumerated and might be encouraged to vote if the administrative arrangements were in place to allow them to do so without the extra effort that is now required.” [2] Rather than simply chastising and shaming non-voters, Pammett’s study suggested a number of important administrative changes to increase the opportunities for various groups of people to vote, some of which were later implemented:

  • Extension and simplification of proxy voting
  • Mail-in ballots
  • Mobile polls
  • Sunday elections
  • Flexible elector list revisions

By the turn of the century, respondents to post-election surveys continued to cite similar reasons for non-voting as those found in 1974, 1980, and 1984. For instance, according to the results of the Canadian Election Study for the 2000 election: “Forty-four percent of non-voting respondents referred to political reasons, such as lack of interest, cynicism, disaffection, or inability to choose among candidates or parties. Forty-three percent reported personal reasons, such as unavailability or inability to attend, or voting being against personal beliefs. Finally, 13 percent indicated an administrative reason related to registration or polling station location and accessibility.” [3] In 2004, post-election survey results found that non-voters once again cited a number of reasons for missing the opportunity to vote, including lack of interest (16%), dislike of all candidates (15%), and being busy at work (15%). 12% of respondents cited a range of “other” reasons mainly focused on health and transportation issues.

Finally, in the aftermath of the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history after the 2008 federal election, The Strategic Counsel provided a report to Elections Canada on a survey of electors that found: “Non-voters offer a wide variety of reasons for not casting a ballot, but these can be divided into everyday life reasons, negative attitudes related to political factors or factors related to the electoral process. Of these three, everyday life intruding appears to be the principal reason given for not voting.” [4]

The historical persistence of “everyday life reasons” of work, health, and travel in studies of non-voting behaviour in Canada should drive future policy changes in the electoral process. Rather than resorting solely to public pleas and marketing campaigns to encourage Canadians to vote, we should continue to develop policy reforms to address such “everyday life reasons” and eliminate any aspects of “administrative disenfranchisement.” Electoral reforms should make voting easier, if we want to see higher voter turnout in future elections.

Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com

[1] Jon H. Pammett, “Voting Turnout in Canada” in Voter Turnout in Canada, ed. Herman Bakvis (Toronto: Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing and Dundurn Press, 1991), 34.

[2] Ibid, 39.

[3] Elections Canada. “2000 General Election Post-Event Overview” http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/eval/surv2000&document=overview_section1&lang=e#a3

[4] The Strategic Counsel, “A Report to Elections Canada: Survey of Electors following the 40th General Election” March 2009.

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