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The Burden of Voting in the 2019 Canadian Federal Election

Chapter 6: Conclusion

Our goal in this study has been to provide an accurate description of the burdens associated with the act of voting, to identify the groups with higher burdens, and to ascertain the impact of these burdens on turnout. We are interested in the perceived subjective burdens since it is not the objective reality that matters in the end but how easy or difficult citizens perceive voting to be. It is on the basis of these perceptions that people decide to vote or abstain. We used the National Electors Survey conducted by Elections Canada, which has two great virtues. First, it contains many questions about these perceived burdens, allowing us to distinguish those related to registering, going to the polling station, casting a ballot, and deciding whom to vote for. Second, it has a large sample, which means that we were able to examine these burdens across many groups and subgroups.

Our analyses carry some very good news. As we suspected before embarking on this study, the great majority of Canadians find it very easy to vote. The greatest burden, deciding whom to vote for, is small, overall, and there is not much that we can do about this. It usually takes less than 10 minutes for people to go to the polling station and less than 10 minutes to cast their ballot once they arrive at the polling station. This is deemed to be reasonable by nearly every voter. People's expectations are mostly realistic. Citizens' evaluations of these burdens do not change much ex-post. People expected voting to be easy and indicated, after the election, that it was indeed easy. As a consequence, those who abstained did so much more because of a lack of motivation than because of obstacles.

Still, improvements can be made. There are small groups of electors that find voting to be somewhat difficult and these perceptions do negatively affect their propensity to vote. Making it easy to vote for everyone would increase turnout, not by a lot but by a few percentage points, and we should do everything we can to facilitate the act of voting for everyone and in the process enhance turnout a little.

We have looked at the socio-demographic characteristics of those who find it more difficult to vote. By far the most crucial characteristic is age. The 18–24 age group is much less likely to say that voting is very easy, their turnout is much lower, and their lower turnout is more strongly affected by perceived burdens than by motivational factors. Our analyses suggest that this is the group that should be targeted first and foremost. We need to think thoroughly and creatively about how to make voting easier for youth.

We also find the perceived burden of voting to be higher among the poor and racial minorities. The disadvantaged groups in society perceive voting to be somewhat more difficult. Income and race do not matter quite as much as age, but they are clearly at play. The poor perceive going to the polling station to be particularly challenging, while racial minorities are more concerned with what they have to do once they arrive at the polling station.

We also paid close attention to specific subgroups. Overall, Indigenous people off reserve, persons with moderate disabilities, and new Canadians do not deem voting to be particularly difficult. However, Indigenous people on reserves tend to find voting to be difficult, and they are much more likely to abstain. Yet the burdens do not appear to be the main reason for their lower turnout. Analyzing this would deserve a more detailed attention in a separate analysis.

Persons with severe disabilities still face higher burdens going to the polling station, but we should point out that this difficulty is not the main reason for their lower turnout.

Finally, there is the group of those who have never voted before in an election. These people are unlikely to vote first and foremost because they are less interested in politics compared to voters and do not perceive voting as a civic duty. Our analyses indicate that they perceive higher burdens and that some of them would vote if they thought that it is very easy.

There is of course a substantial overlap between this group and that of 18–24 year-olds. It seems that not having voted before can lead someone to believe that voting may not be that easy. This may not be that different from how we feel when we face a new task such as learning how to use a new digital device or platform for online conferences.

We would like to end with a few recommendations that we believe flow from our findings.

The first recommendation is that Elections Canada should tell Canadians loud and clear that voting is easy and takes little time. Elections Canada should inform citizens about the potential obstacles and the need to provide proof of identity and address, for instance, at the polling station; but the main message should be that voting is simple and quick, and that message needs to be conveyed more deliberately.

The second recommendation is that Elections Canada should familiarize Canadians with the voting process, and the earlier the better. One way is to encourage parents to come to the polling station with their children (and to allow kids to accompany them when they cast their vote). Another is to hold more mock elections at schools at the time as real elections and with the same ballots, as is done through the Student Vote Canada program. People are more likely to believe that voting is easy if they have voted previously.

The third recommendation concerns registration. For the great majority of Canadians, registration is not a concern. They are registered, and they are not worried about it. But for a small minority, and especially among youth, this may be a substantial burden and that burden has a significant impact on the propensity to vote. Believing that it will be difficult to register is a strong incentive to do nothing and abstain. Therefore, registration should be completely automatic. While the establishment of the Register of Future Electors is a positive step, 29 as soon as one reaches 18 or becomes a Canadian citizen, they should be added to the electors' list without having to do anything extra. In Sweden, for example, registration is automatic when citizens reach legal voting age, and we see no reason not to follow that practice in Canada. 30

Our last recommendation would be about how Elections Canada communicates with Canadians. The official communications informing people that they are registered at a given address and that the advance and ordinary polling stations are located at a given place and for a given time period come in the mail. We all know that the mail is not a familiar means of communication for the younger generation. More effort should be devoted to providing that information on the Internet and informing people through social media that they just have to click a link and enter their address, and they will know exactly when and where they can cast their ballot. This information could also include whether they are on the National Register of Electors at that address or not. This would help students in particular, as they may have a permanent address at their parents' home but are temporarily living on campus and, as such, find themselves in a unique position of being able to choose where to vote.

These various steps would, we believe, decrease the sense of burden among certain electors and have the positive impact of increasing turnout by a few percentage points. We have to be realistic. Abstention is driven first and foremost by lack of motivation. Still, we should make sure that no one does not vote because it is too difficult or because they think it might be too difficult. We have been doing a good job of reducing the obstacles to voting. But we can do better.


29 Since April 1, 2019, Canadian citizens aged 14 to 17 years old can apply to be on the Register of Future Electors at the federal level, and once they turn 18, they are automatically added to the National Register of Electors.