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Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters

Executive Summary

This report presents the major findings of a survey of Canadians carried out in April 2002. The sample design included a short screening interview with a large number of Canadians (5 637) and a longer interview with 960 reported voters in the 2000 federal election and 960 reported non-voters in that election. Interviews were thus obtained with a much larger group of non-voters than is customary in election-related surveys of the Canadian public, allowing a detailed examination of their reasons for not voting.

After a brief introduction illustrating the phenomenon of turnout declines, the report examines responses given by non-voters in the 2000 federal election about their reasons for not going to the polls. Those reasons include lack of interest in the election, negative attitudes toward politics, and personal/administrative factors. Young non-voters were more likely to cite lack of interest and personal/administrative reasons for not voting.

The report then examines a series of correlates of not voting, starting with socio-demographic factors. Age, education, income, place of birth and mobility all relate to voting/not voting, but age is the most important factor. The rate of voter participation declines steadily as one moves from the oldest to the youngest age cohorts. There is even a slight difference in the voting rates of some of the older cohorts in the study, with those who entered the electorate during the 1968 and 1972 federal elections participating at lower rates than those who entered earlier. However, the greatest declines occur in subsequent generations. Less than two thirds of those who entered the electorate during the 1974–1980 period voted in 2000, while only 54.2 percent of those who entered during the 1984–88 period did so. From that point forward, the voting rate slips well below half, with the cohort that entered the electorate in 1993 voting at 38.2 percent in 2000, the 1997 cohort at 27.5 percent, and those eligible to vote for the first time in 2000 voting at a rate of just 22.4 percent.

Important attitudinal and behavioural factors in voting/not voting include: feelings of inefficacy; civic duty and political interest; and perception of the effectiveness of the vote. People are less likely to cast a ballot if they feel they have no influence over government actions, do not feel voting is an essential civic act, or do not feel the election is competitive enough to make their votes matter to the outcome, either at the national or the local constituency level.

Three additional topics are investigated at greater length. The first is the political attitudes of youth, including the ways in which young people might be encouraged to take a greater interest in politics. Enhanced political education is the major suggestion of young people themselves, together with an injection into federal politics of issues that are more relevant to youth. The second is the possible improvement in the voting rate that might be produced by use of the Internet for adding to and updating the National Register of Electors, and/or for voting itself. The authors estimate that a small increase in the voting rate would accompany the introduction of a system of Internet voting and registration. Third, the report offers a more detailed analysis of the personal and administrative factors behind not voting. There is considerable evidence from this study that more needs to be done to ensure the registration of the maximum number of citizens, particularly young people becoming eligible for the first time, in the National Register of Electors. In addition, the predominance of reasons for not voting in this study relating to lack of time or absence from the constituency leads to the observation that new technologies could help to provide solutions to these problems.

Much of the data explored in this report leads to the conclusion that voting rates will likely continue to decline in Canada. The voting rates of generations entering the electorate in the last two decades, and particularly since 1993, are substantially lower than those of previous generations. While "life cycle" effects help to increase the initial low participation rate of all generations, they have not brought those who became eligible during the 1980s or later up to the participation levels of earlier entrants. There has been, according to the authors, a long-term secular decline in the electoral participation of successive generations of Canadians. An effective response to this trend will require more than short-term, small-scale reform measures. The evidence assembled in this report indicates that further efforts in the areas of education and administration of elections could have some beneficial impact.