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

1. Trends in Voter Turnout

As Figure 1 indicates, turnout in Canadian federal elections, as a percentage of registered electors, averaged about 75 percent in the years after the Second World War.2 Three notable exceptions to this trend occurred in 1953, 1974 and 1980. While part of the explanation for these earlier drops in turnout can be traced to the fact that the elections in question were held either at the height of summer or in winter,3 part can also be found in the political situations of the time. The 1953 election came during a long period of one-party dominance. The 1974 and 1980 elections were occasioned by the fall of minority governments and held in a climate of relative public dissatisfaction with politics in general.

In contrast to those earlier cases, the recent drop in turnout has been more prolonged, falling steadily over the last three elections  – to 70 percent in 1993, 67 percent in 1997, and finally to just over 61* percent in the 2000 general election. The issue of voter turnout, once a topic of interest to a small group of academics, has become a source of concern to the wider scholarly community, the media and attentive members of the general public.

At the same time, as Figure 2 shows, turnout has been declining in many other industrialized countries.4 Turnout in French parliamentary elections has declined to levels as low as those observed in Canada, while in the United Kingdom it has fallen even lower.5 In American presidential elections, the participation of registered voters has been declining over the last two decades. Of course, deficiencies in the registration process itself are an important factor in analyzing American turnout. When taken as a percentage of the voting-age population, barely half of eligible Americans turn out to vote for a President, while for other offices the participation rate is even lower.

As these international examples illustrate, the recent decline in Canadian voter turnout is by no means exceptional. This does not make it any less a cause for concern. The present study seeks to identify the underlying causes of this decline so that measures might be taken to address it effectively.

The turnout of 61.2% in 2000 was adjusted to arrive at the final turnout of 64.1%, after our normal maintenance of the National Register of Electors to remove the names of deceased electors and duplicates arising from moves. The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada explained the adjustment during his appearance before the Subcommittee on Electoral Boundaries Readjustment on October 6, 2003, and his appearance to discuss the 2004 Main Estimates before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on March 5, 2004.

Data on turnout in Canadian federal elections come from A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997, Table 1, p. 102).

3  August in 1953, July in 1974 and February in 1980.

4  Data for Figure 2 come from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Voter engagement and young people (London: Electoral Commission 2002). See

Figure 1. Voting Turnout in Canadian Federal Elections (1945 – 2000)

Graphic showing voting turnout in Canadian federal elections from 1945 to 2000

Figure 2. Voting Turnout in Selected Foreign Countries

Voting turnout graphic in foreign countries