A History of the Vote in Canada

Appendix
Voter Turnout Since Confederation

The history of the vote in Canada is the history of an almost constantly expanding right, despite temporary detours along the way. By the time of the 1921 general election, Canada had achieved almost universal suffrage. Expansion of the franchise is evident in the figures on electoral participation – often referred to as voter turnout. The number of registered electors rose from 361,028 at Confederation to over 23 million in 2006 (see Table 1). In 1867, the electorate represented just 11 percent of the population; by 2006, this proportion had grown to over 75 percent.

Although expansion of the electorate is partly the result of population growth, the electorate also grew significantly following changes in electoral laws to broaden the franchise. For example, the enfranchised proportion of the population increased from 25 percent in 1911 to more than 50 percent in 1921, following the enfranchisement of women and the removal of property requirements for voters. Increases in electoral participation have also resulted from legislative and administrative changes intended to simplify registration and voting procedures, thereby facilitating exercise of the franchise.

In the 39 general elections and three referendums held since 1867, an average of 71 percent of registered electors exercised the franchise. Voter turnout, which is calculated based on the number of individuals registered to vote, has ranged from a low of 44 percent in the Prohibition plebiscite of 1898 to a high of 79 percent at the general election of 1958.

Significant variations in voter turnout are shown in Table 2. Turnout rates have generally been higher in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick than in the other provinces. With the exception of the 1958 general election, average voter turnout in Newfoundland and Labrador has consistently been below that of other provinces.

Studies of voting behaviour in the past two decades, often supported by extensive public opinion polling, have suggested several factors that help to explain variations in turnout. Regional variations, for example, have been explained in terms of electoral competitiveness, with higher rates of turnout being associated with a higher proportion of competitive electoral contests. Studies have also shown that socio-economic status tends to influence voter participation: electoral participation increases with levels of education and income. In addition, members of some occupational groups have been found to participate at lower rates than other groups in society.

Characteristics such as race and ethnicity, language and religious affiliation have been found to affect electoral behaviour, but the rate of voter turnout among women and men has tended not to differ significantly. Age also affects turnout. Until recently, the finding that turnout is lower among youth than among older people was believed to be largely the result of a "life cycle" effect: young people's propensity to vote was found to increase as they aged. Recent studies indicate that this explanation no longer holds. Not only are young people participating less than their elders, their willingness to participate appears to be declining over time.

Following the June 2004 election, Elections Canada began a unique study to determine actual voter turnout among different age groups by analyzing samples of voters lists. The findings showed that first-time voters (those between 18 and 21½ years of age) had a 39 percent voter turnout. This made them about 4 percent more likely to vote than those eligible to vote for their second time (those between 21½ and 24 years of age).

Elections Canada is conducting a similar study after the 39th general election to find out if any clear trends emerge.

The relative stability or mobility of the population has been identified as a determinant of voter turnout. Electoral districts with a disproportionately mobile population tend to have lower rates of turnout. Other predictors of political participation include political interest, political knowledge and strength of party identification. The most interested and informed individuals are more likely to vote or participate in the political process in other ways. Because interest in politics can influence turnout, the issues in a given election campaign can be important indicators of potential participation.

Finally, the electoral process itself can influence voter turnout. Qualifications determining eligibility, the registration process, the available methods of voting, and information about electoral rights and procedures – all can have an effect on turnout. Illness and hospitalization or absence from home for other reasons are often cited as reasons for not voting, as are weather conditions at various times of the year. Electoral officials cannot change the weather, but some obstacles to voting can be tackled through administrative and practical means. In fact, some changes in the law originated as practical innovations in election administration.

Table 1

Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums, 1867–2006*

Date of election/
referendum
Population Number of electors on lists Total ballots cast Voter turnout 1
(0%)
August 7 – September 20, 1867 2 3,230,000 361,028 268,387 73.1
July 20 – October 12, 1872 3,689,000 426,974 318,329 70.3
January 22, 1874 3,689,000 432,410 324,006 69.6
September 17, 1878 3,689,000 715,279 534,029 69.1
June 20, 1882 4,325,000 663,873 508,496 70.3
February 22, 1887 4,325,000 948,222 724,517 70.1
March 5, 1891 4,833,000 1,113,140 778,495 64.4
June 23, 1896 4,833,000 1,358,328 912,992 62.9
September 29, 1898 3 4,833,000 1,236,419 551,405 44.6
November 7, 1900 4,833,000 1,167,402 958,497 77.4
November 3, 1904 5,371,000 1,385,440 1,036,878 71.6
October 26, 1908 5,371,000 1,463,591 1,180,820 70.3
September 21, 1911 7,204,527 1,820,742 1,314,953 70.2
December 17, 1917 7,591,971 2,093,799 1,892,741 75.0
December 6, 1921 8,760,211 4,435,310 3,139,306 67.7
October 29, 1925 8,776,352 4,608,636 3,168,412 66.4
September 14, 1926 8,887,952 4,665,381 3,273,062 67.7
July 28, 1930 8,887,952 5,153,971 3,922,481 73.5
October 14, 1935 10,367,063 5,918,207 4,452,675 74.2
March 26, 1940 10,429,169 6,588,888 4,672,531 69.9
April 27, 1942 3 11,494,627 6,502,234 4,638,847 71.3
June 11, 1945 11,494,627 6,952,445 5,305,193 75.3
June 27, 1949 11,823,649 7,893,629 5,903,572 73.8
August 10, 1953 14,003,704 8,401,691 5,701,963 67.5
June 10, 1957 16,073,970 8,902,125 6,680,690 74.1
March 31, 1958 16,073,970 9,131,200 7,357,139 79.4
June 18, 1962 18,238,247 9,700,325 7,772,656 79.0
April 8, 1963 18,238,247 9,910,757 7,958,636 79.2
November 8, 1965 18,238,247 10,274,904 7,796,728 74.8
June 25, 1968 20,014,880 10,860,888 8,217,916 75.7
October 30, 1972 21,568,311 13,000,778 9,974,661 76.7
July 8, 1974 21,568,311 13,620,353 9,671,002 71.0
May 22, 1979 22,992,604 15,233,653 11,541,000 75.7
February 18, 1980 22,992,604 15,890,416 11,015,514 69.3
September 4, 1984 24,343,181 16,774,941 12,638,424 75.3
November 21, 1988 25,309,331 17,639,001 13,281,191 75.3
October 26, 1992 3, 4 20,400,896 13,725,966 9,855,978 71.8
October 25, 1993 27,296,859 19,906,796 13,863,135 69.6 5
June 2, 1997 27,296,859 19,663,478 13,174,698 67.0
November 27, 2000 28,846,761 21,243,473 12,997,185 64.1 6
June 28, 2004 30,007,094 22,466,621 13,683,570 60.9
January 23, 2006 30,007,094 23,054,615 14,908,703 64.7

*Presenting these figures involves several challenges. The data contained in official election results since Confederation have not been reported consistently. In the case of an election by acclamation, for instance, the number of registered electors on the lists for that electoral district was included in the total number of registered electors for some elections, but not for others. In other cases, lists of electors were not prepared for some districts. In Prince Edward Island, no lists were prepared in the entire province for several elections.

Moreover, a number of electoral districts were dual-member constituencies until 1966. As each elector could vote for more than one candidate, the reported number of votes cast (valid and rejected ballots) was higher than it would have been in a single-member scenario. Voter turnout figures (including those presented in this Appendix) have been corrected where appropriate: to estimate turnout in these cases, the total number of votes cast in a plural-member electoral district was divided by the number of members elected from that district. (Scarrow 1962)

  1. Percentages are calculated based on the number of registered electors.
  2. In early elections, polling took place over several weeks or even months.
  3. A referendum.
  4. Does not include Quebec, as Quebec conducted its own referendum.
  5. This percentage rises to 70.9 when the number of electors on the lists is adjusted to account for electors who had moved or died between the enumeration for the 1992 referendum and the election of 1993. A separate enumeration for the 1993 election was carried out only in Quebec, as the 1992 electoral lists were reused in all other provinces and territories.
  6. Originally published as 61.2 percent, the 2000 turnout was adjusted to 64.1 percent, after normal maintenance of the National Register of Electors that removed the names of deceased electors and duplicates arising from moves.

Source: Reports of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (1867–1917); reports of the Chief Electoral Officer (1921–2006); unpublished summary data prepared by Elections Canada; R. Pomfret, The Economic Development of Canada (1987); H. A. Scarrow, Canada Votes (1962); Contact (1985).

Table 2

Voter Turnout1 at Federal Elections and Referendums by Province and Territory2

Date of election/
referendum
N.L. P.E.I. N.S. N.B. Que. Ont. Man. Sask. Alta. B.C. N.W.T. Yukon Nunavut Canada
August 7 – September 20, 1867     77 71 69 75               73
July 20 – October 12, 1872     59 80 67 72 86     51       70
January 22, 1874   • • 67 66 62 71 70     58       70
September 17, 1878   65 79 73 67 68 51     70       69
June 20, 1882   • • 71 73 67 70 32     68       70
February 22, 1887   86 81 77 68 69 46     56 70     70
March 5, 1891   77 75 69 66 63 42     47 64     64
June 23, 1896   74 68 70 66 61 50     40 71     63
September 29, 1898 3   46 40 41 46 47 32     30 38     45
November 7, 1900   • • 77 73 70 70 65     69 76     77
November 3, 1904   • • 73 77 70 77 69     56 72     72
October 26, 1908   • • 73 78 69 68 81 • • • • 54   87   70
September 21, 1911   • • 83 78 71 69 79 63 65 53   83   70
December 17, 1917   76 80 89 76 79 79 70 76 83   56   75
December 6, 1921   79 69 64 75 63 65 67 63 67   83   68
October 29, 1925   76 70 61 72 65 68 57 57 75   78   66
September 14, 1926   84 72 68 71 64 77 70 57 71   80   68
July 28, 1930   89 83 78 76 69 72 81 66 73   82   73
October 14, 1935   80 76 77 74 74 75 77 65 76   70   74
March 26, 1940   78 70 68 66 69 74 77 63 76   82   70
April 27, 1942 3   57 45 63 76 64 67 59 65 69 62 58   71
June 11, 1945   81 72 78 73 75 76 85 73 80   63   75
June 27, 1949 58 85 75 79 74 75 72 79 69 69   76   74
August 10, 1953 57 83 72 78 69 67 59 74 63 65 63 76   67
June 10, 1957 52 85 81 81 72 74 74 81 73 74 63 89   74
March 31, 1958 79 88 84 85 79 79 80 82 74 76 74 90   79
June 18, 1962 72 90 84 83 78 80 77 85 74 78 72 88   79
April 8, 1963 69 84 82 81 76 81 78 83 79 80 73 88   79
November 8, 1965 66 88 82 80 71 77 74 80 74 75 76 86   75
June 25, 1968 68 88 82 80 72 77 76 81 73 76 69 87   76
October 30, 1972 63 86 80 77 76 79 74 79 76 73 73 79   77
July 8, 1974 57 80 74 71 67 74 70 72 67 72 61 67   71
May 22, 1979 60 81 75 74 76 78 77 79 68 75 70 74   76
February 18, 1980 59 79 72 71 68 72 69 71 61 71 67 69   69
September 4, 1984 65 85 75 77 76 76 73 78 69 78 68 78   75
November 21, 1988 67 85 75 76 75 75 75 78 75 79 71 78   75
October 26, 1992 3 53 71 68 72 4 72 71 69 73 77 70 70   72
October 25, 1993 55 73 64 69 77 67 68 69 65 67 63 70   70 5
June 2, 1997 55 73 69 73 73 66 63 65 59 66 59 70   67
November 27, 2000 57 73 63 68 64 58 62 62 60 63 52 64 54 61
June 28, 2004 49 71 62 63 61 62 57 59 59 63 47 62 44 61
January 23, 2006 57 73 64 69 64 67 62 65 62 64 56 66 54 65

• • Data not available

  1. Percentages are calculated based on the number of registered electors.
  2. The provinces entered Confederation as follows: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, July 1, 1867; Manitoba, July 15, 1870; British Columbia, July 20, 1871; Prince Edward Island, July 1, 1873; Alberta and Saskatchewan, September 1, 1905; and Newfoundland, March 31, 1949.
  3. A referendum.
  4. Quebec conducted its own referendum in 1992.
  5. See Table 1, note 5.

Source: Reports of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (1867–1917); reports of the Chief Electoral Officer (1921–2006); unpublished summary data prepared by Elections Canada.

Selected Readings

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Abbott, Elizabeth, ed., and Jacques Legrand. Chronicle of Canada. Montréal: Chronicle Publications, 1990.

Adachi, Ken. The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Bacchi, Carol. "Liberation Deferred: The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877–1918." Ph.D. thesis. McGill University, 1976.

Black, Jerome H. "Reforming the Context of the Voting Process in Canada: Lessons from Other Democracies." Voter Turnout in Canada, ed. Herman Bakvis. Vol. 15 of the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

Brodie, Janine, with the assistance of Celia Chandler. "Women and the Electoral Process in Canada." Women in Canadian Politics: Toward Equity in Representation, ed. Kathy Megyery. Vol. 6 of the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

Canada. Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (RCERPF). Reforming Electoral Democracy. Volumes 1 and 2 of the Final Report. Ottawa: RCERPF, 1991.

The Canadian Gallup Poll Ltd. "Attitudes of the Public Towards the Federal Electoral Process in Canada." Commissioned by Elections Canada. 1979.

The Canadian Gallup Poll Ltd. "Attitudes of the Public Towards the Federal Electoral Process in Canada." Commissioned by Elections Canada. 1980.

The Canadian Gallup Poll Ltd. "Gallup National Omnibus Conducted for Elections Canada: Summary of Results." Commissioned by Elections Canada. 1984.

The Canadian Gallup Poll Ltd. "Gallup National Omnibus Conducted for Elections Canada: Summary of Results." Commissioned by Elections Canada. 1986.

Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950.

Cornell, Paul G., et al. Canada, Unity in Diversity. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Courtney, John C. Commissioned Ridings: Designing Canada's Electoral Districts. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB). Volumes IV (1979), V (1983), VII (1988), VIII (1985), X (1972). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966–.

Diefenbaker, John G. One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker. The Crusading Years 1895–1956. Vol. 1. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975.

Eagles, Munroe. "Voting and Non-voting in Canadian Federal Elections: An Ecological Analysis." Voter Turnout in Canada, ed. Herman Bakvis. Vol. 15 of the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

English, John. The Decline of Politics: The Conservatives and the Party System 1901–20. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1977.

Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Franquet, Louis. Voyages et mémoires sur le Canada. With a preface by Jacques Lacoursière. Montréal: Éditions Élysée, 1974.

Gallup Canada Inc. "Gallup National Omnibus Survey of Eligible Voters." Commissioned by Elections Canada. 1988.

Gallup Canada Inc. "1992 Federal Referendum Study: Volume I – National Survey Final Report." Commissioned by Elections Canada. 1993.

Garner, John. The Franchise and Politics in British North America, 1755–1867. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.

Hamel, J. M. "Canadian Women and the Vote." Chelsea Journal (September/October 1975).

Hamelin, Jean, and Marcel Hamelin. Les mœurs électorales dans le Québec de 1791 à nos jours. Montréal: Éditions du Jour, 1962.

Hamelin, Jean, John Huot and Marcel Hamelin. Aperçu de la politique canadienne au XIXe siècle. Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1965.

Lamoureux, Diane. Citoyennes? Femmes, droit de vote et démocratie. Montréal: Éditions du remue-ménage, 1989.

Lavergne, France. Le suffrage féminin. Études électorales. Sainte-Foy: Directeur général des élections du Québec, 1990.

Milen, Robert A. "Aboriginal Constitutional and Electoral Reform." Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform in Canada, ed. Robert A. Milen. Vol. 9 of the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

Mishler, William. Political Participation in Canada: Prospects for Democratic Citizenship. Toronto: Macmillan, 1979.

Pammett, Jon H. "Voting Turnout in Canada." Voter Turnout in Canada, ed. Herman Bakvis. Vol. 15 of the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

Pammett, Jon H., and Lawrence LeDuc. Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters. Ottawa: Elections Canada, 2003.

Pomfret, Richard. The Economic Development of Canada. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1987. Original published by Methuen Publications, 1981.

Power, Charles Gavan. A Party Politician: The Memoirs of Chubby Power. Edited by Norman Ward. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1966.

Preston, W. T. R. My Generation of Politics and Politicians. Toronto: D.A. Rose Publishing Co., 1927.

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Roy, Patricia E. "Citizens Without Votes: East Asians in British Columbia, 1872–1947." Ethnicity, Power and Politics in Canada, eds. Jorgen Dalhie and Tessa Fernando. Toronto: Methuen, 1981.

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Scarrow, Howard A. Canada Votes: A Handbook of Federal and Provincial Election Data. New Orleans: The Hauser Press, 1962.

Scarrow, Howard A. "Patterns of Voter Turnout in Canada." Voting in Canada, ed. John C. Courtney. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Schull, Joseph. Laurier: The First Canadian. Toronto: The Macmillan Co. of Canada, 1965.

Small, David, ed. Drawing the Map: Equality and Efficacy of the Vote in Canadian Electoral Boundary Reform. Vol. 11 of the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

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Stewart, Gordon T. "John A. Macdonald's Greatest Triumph." Canadian Historical Review Vol. 63 (1982), pp. 3–34.

Ward, Norman. The Canadian House of Commons: Representation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963.

Woodsworth, J. S. Strangers Within Our Gates, or, Coming Canadians. Toronto: F. C. Stephenson, 1909.