The Burden of Voting in the 2019 Canadian Federal Election
Chapter 3: The Global Picture
Throughout this study we focus on four specific burdens that citizens may face if they wish to vote. These are the burdens associated with four key steps when voting, including registration, going to the polling station, actually casting a vote, and, finally, deciding who to vote for. The first three steps concern voting procedures. In order to vote, an elector has to be registered, go to the polling station footnote 6 , and make their choice on a ballot paper. The last step concerns vote choice. A person has to decide which candidate to support and, in order to do so, must gather information about the various options. This last burden has been called an "indirect" burden (Blais et al. 2019). footnote 7
Just before an election campaign, when we measure these burdens, some of them may not apply. If a person is already registered on the electors' list, they do not have to take on the burden of getting registered. If they have already decided who to vote for, they do not need to gather further information about the parties and candidates. If they have voted in a previous election, they may already know what the ballot looks like and what they need to do at the polling station. Going to the polling station does require some time but, for many people, it may take only a few minutes and simply require a short and pleasant walk.
How big or small are these burdens perceived to be? In the first wave of the survey in June, Canadians were asked how easy or difficult they thought it would be to register to vote, decide which candidate to vote for, go to the polling station, and vote, once they arrived at the polling station (Q31_a to Q31_d, Wave 1). The response categories are "very easy," "somewhat easy," "somewhat difficult," and "very difficult" (see Appendix A for exact question wordings). We recoded these responses on a scale of 0 to 1. The question about registration was (logically) not asked to those who had previously indicated that they were already registered. footnote 8 Those who have already registered do not have anything further to do in terms of registration, so they do not bear any burden in this electoral cycle. We have logically put them at 0.
Figure 3.1 shows the distribution of responses to these questions. For each of these questions, the most frequent response is "very easy." Most Canadians find each of these steps to be minimal, which is consistent with previous findings (Blais et al. 2019). The percentage of "very easy" is over 90% for registration, footnote 9 about 70% for going to the polling station and voting, and about 40% for deciding who to vote for. Even in that last case, less than one-third characterize it as difficult. The percentage of "difficult" is less than 5% for the three other steps. We can conclude that for the great majority of Canadians, voting is perceived to be quite easy.
Other questions in the survey allow us to better understand why voting is construed as easy, especially with respect to going to the polling station and casting a ballot. Respondents were asked to estimate how much time they thought it would take them to go to the polling station and to vote once they arrived (Q32ar and Q32br, Wave 1). Figure 3.2 presents the distribution of responses. The majority thinks that it will take less than 10 minutes for each. Only slightly more than 10% estimate that it will take more than 20 minutes. The most frequent response for going to the poll is 10 minutes and for voting, 5 minutes; footnote 10 and there is a modest correlation between the time it takes and evaluation of the burden. footnote 11
Let us look more closely at these results, starting with registration. Canadian electors who want to register can do so online at any time or in person at any Elections Canada office during the election campaign, at advance polls or on polling day. They need to show proof of identity and address. They can do so using a wide range of documents. These documents can be uploaded directly on the Elections Canada website or shown in person. As previously mentioned, the great majority of Canadians are already on the National Register of Electors and thus, for them, there is no registration burden. footnote 12 What about the 10% who answered that they were not registered or who didn't know whether they were registered? Among them, 85% expected registration to be easy, and 15%, difficult (Q25 and Q31_a, Wave 1). How easy was it to actually get registered? Those who took the steps to get registered were asked, in the post-election wave, how easy or difficult it was to make sure they were registered; only 3% indicated it was difficult (Q33, Wave 3).
The second burden is that associated with going to the polling station. In Canadian federal elections, polling stations are selected based on three key principles: accessibility, proximity and familiarity. In 2019, 98% of electors lived within 6 km of their polling place. footnote 13 As shown in Figure 3.1, very few people anticipated any difficulty with going to the polling station. But were there unpleasant surprises? Was it as easy as expected? The answer is they found it to be in fact easier. In the post-election survey (wave 3) those who had voted were asked how much time (in minutes) it took to travel to the polling station. Before the election, 19% of those who ended up voting indicated that they expected it to take more than 15 minutes (Q32ar, Wave 1 if respondent completed Wave 3). After the fact, less than 10% answered that it took them more than 15 minutes to arrive at their polling station (Q49r, Wave 3). footnote 14 There is thus no systematic underestimation; there is in fact some over estimation of how much time going to the polling station takes (mean minutes of expected time – actual time to go the polling station). footnote 15
People who live in different places may be used to different traveling times; subjective perception of time is thus as important as actual time. In wave 3, respondents were asked if the time it took to travel to the polling station was reasonable. Virtually everyone (98%) said it was reasonable (Q50, Wave 3). They were also asked if the location was a familiar place: 75% said that it was very familiar and an additional 19% said it was somewhat familiar (Q52, Wave 3). A final question was whether the building where they voted was suitable; 84% indicated that it was very suitable and 14% that it was somewhat suitable (Q57, Wave 3). All these results confirm that most Canadians think it is quite easy to go to the polling station.
The third potential burden concerns the challenges related to what the voter needs to do once they are at the polling station. This includes entering the building, sometimes using stairs, a ramp or an elevator. Sometimes they are required to wait in a queue. In addition, they must show proof of identity; obtain a ballot, listen to instructions from the poll workers; go to the voting booth to mark their ballot and return it to the poll worker; and leave the building. As shown in Figure 3.2, prior to the election, most people (66%) thought it would take them less than 10 minutes to cast their ballot. In the post-election survey, 86% of respondents indicated that it took them less than 10 minutes (Q67r, Wave 3). Nearly all respondents (95%) thought that this was a reasonable amount of time (Q68, Wave 3).
One of the requirements that people have to fulfill in order to cast their vote at the polling station is to show some proof of identity and address. All those who voted were asked in the post-election wave how easy or difficult it was to meet the identification requirement. Again, the great majority answered it was very (94%) or somewhat (5%) easy (Q65, Wave 3).
At the very end of the post-election survey, respondents were asked "Overall, how easy was it to vote?" The dominant answer is "very easy" and less than 2% indicated that it was difficult (Q78, Wave 3).
Throughout these analyses, we have considered the burden of voting independently of the voting method. More and more Canadians are voting at advance polling stations rather than on the day of the election. footnote 16 In Canadian federal elections, advance polls are held on the 10th, 9th, 8th and 7th days before election day, from a Friday to a Monday. In 2019, more than 4.9 million electors voted at advance polls, a 33 percent increase from the 2015 general election. footnote 17 Some do so presumably because they expect to be away on election day. Many others may vote earlier because they think it will take less time, because it is more convenient, or simply to "get it done" since they have already made their decision. However, there are fewer advance polls than regular polls. It is therefore worth asking if advance polls are really a faster, easier or more convenient option for voters.
Figure 3.3 compares the reported amount of time it took, on average, to go to the polling station and to vote, as well as the percentage of respondents who said that, all in all, voting was easy among those who voted on the day of the election and those who voted earlier (Q43, Q67r, Q78 in Wave 3). The differences between the two groups are quite small. Figure 3.3 also reports the expectations of these two groups, both with respect to the amount of time and level of ease, as measured ex-ante, in wave 1 (Q32br and Q31_d in Wave 1, broken down by respondents who completed question Q43 in wave 3). Here again the differences are small. All in all, voting is as quick and easy on the day of the election as it is at advance polls.
Until now we have focused on the possible obstacles that an elector who has decided to vote may face, which are related to the voting procedure. But the elector must also decide which party/candidate to support. For some people, making up their mind is extremely easy while for others it is quite a challenge. As shown in Figure 3.1, 28% indicated in wave 1 that they thought it would be difficult to make that decision (Q31_b, Wave 1). The same question was not asked in the post-election survey, and so we cannot tell whether these perceptions were revised upwards or downwards.
We do have some other pieces of information, however, which suggest little overall change. In wave 1, respondents were shown nine different steps that they might have to take during the campaign and asked which steps applied to them and how easy or difficult they expected these steps to be. Two of these steps are directly related to the decision task: finding out about candidates and deciding who to vote for (Q34_a and Q34_f, Wave 1). Figure 3.4 shows that among those who indicated that the task applied to them, about a quarter of respondents said that these steps would be difficult. Those who had voted were asked the same question (Q128_a and Q128_f, Wave 3) in the post-election wave. The percentage who answered that it was actually difficult was in fact slightly lower in both cases. footnote 18
We looked at the burden associated with four different actions: those related to registering, going to the polling station, casting a ballot, and deciding who to vote for. We find that the first three burdens are deemed to be very small by a vast majority, while the last is perceived to be slightly higher though still relatively small. These burdens are not independent of each other. Those who find one task difficult are prone to find others difficult as well. The correlations between the perceived burdens range from .14 to .51 (see Appendix B for the correlation matrix between these four burdens) (Q31_a – d, Wave 1).
These findings confirm that the burden of voting is generally perceived to be quite small. That being said, there are some people who find it difficult to vote. Our task, in the next chapter, is to find out who these people are and to understand why it is so.
Return to source 6 Canadians can, of course, vote by mail if they choose to, but very few do so in reality.
Return to source 7 It has also been labelled the "information cost" (Blais 2000).
Return to source 8 4% of the respondents indicated that they were not registered and an additional 6% did not know if they were (Q25, Wave 1).
Return to source 9 This is, of course, because 89% of the respondents indicate that they are already registered. Among those who are not (or don't know), the most frequent response is "somewhat easy".
Return to source 10 This amounts to 25 minutes altogether: 10 minutes to go to the polling station, 5 minutes to vote, and (presumably) 10 minutes to go back home (but note that some people may vote on the way to or back from work).
Return to source 11 More precisely, the percentage responding that it is very easy to go to the polling station goes from 74% when the estimated time is 5 minutes to 65% when it is 30 minutes. The corresponding percentages for voting once arrived are 78% and 61%. Note that the modal response among those who anticipate taking 30 minutes for each step is "very easy."
Return to source 12 There can be a small burden if one takes steps (like contacting Elections Canada) to make sure they are registered. But 77% of those who did so revealed, in the post-election survey, that doing so was very easy and an additional 20%, somewhat easy. (Q33, Wave 3)
Return to source 13 https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=vot&dir=spe%2Fchecklist&document=psspp&lang=e and https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rep%2Fdpr%2Fdrr2019&document=p2&lang=e
Return to source 14 We are comparing only those who answered both questions.
Return to source 15 We cannot rule out the possibility that people underestimate the actual time it takes in both surveys. The data show, however, that people do not substantially re-evaluate the time burden after the fact.
Return to source 16 There are other possibilities, such as voting by mail or at local Elections Canada offices, but this concerns very few voters. Note that our survey does not cover Canadians living abroad.
Return to source 18 The same pattern emerges if we consider only those who answered both surveys.