There Is A Connection Between 59 Percent Voter Turnout And Four 36 Day Elections In A Row

Voter turnout has been taking a nosedive over the past fifteen years because 1. the Canada Elections Act put a 36-day minimum on campaigning, and 2. the federal parties figured out that if you have $50 million dollars to spend over an election campaign it’s better value to do it over 36 days instead of 70.

Just twenty years ago voter turnout was 75.3%. The Liberal Party called elections in 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2006, all of which ran the absolute bare minimum of thirty-six days. Voter turnout since 1997 has fallen below 70% each year until this years 59% turnout (1997: 67%; 2000: 61.2%, 2004: 60.9%, 2006: 64.7%).

What has increased over the same amount of time, however, is ideology over policy as election strategy. Instead of having reasoned debate and time to understand what the policies are, Canadian politics has been reduced to leaders literally accusing each other of wanting to destroy the country. In all four elections, including the one the Liberals lost in 2004, the only platform that mattered was “hidden agenda”. As in “they” have one, and only the “I” can keep you safe from it.

The issue in all four elections was the same: fear. There were no substantial reasons for the 1997, 2000 and 2004 elections, for example, other than the ruling governments believed the opposition parties were in enough disarray an election victory was guaranteed. And they were short because longer elections left too many variables, while the shortest possible election meant more weight to platitudes and one-liners.

Because there’s no time to lay out new policies, or discuss and even change them. Shorter election times means spending more time pre-election demonizing your opponent so we “get” their message in the short campaign. Shorter election times mean ideologues are given the opportunity to set the agenda, and with such a low minimum keeping the electorate as uninvolved as possible has become a strategy.

Since the 1993 election Canadians have decided the makeup of our government based on no platforms, no serious debate and at the whim of whichever special interest group can whip up a concert overnight.

Before the 1993 election — then the shortest at 47 days, and with a 69.6% turnout — Canada had some of the largest voter turnouts of any democracy. Now, after four consecutive 36-day elections, we don’t. Increase the minimum, force the parties to defend their platform over a significant time, and give people time to figure out what’s going on and the numbers will go back up.

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* This is mostly in response to some comments on Thorora’s blog. She’s thinking of moving to Sweden, so I thought I’d offer an alternative because, really, Sweden sucks.

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About Gabriel

I’ve lived in fifty-two places. I've been paid to pick stones out of fields, take backstage photos of Britney Spears, and report on Internet privacy issues. My photos have been published in several newspapers, and a couple of magazines.
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11 Responses to There Is A Connection Between 59 Percent Voter Turnout And Four 36 Day Elections In A Row

  1. I think it’s just that people don’t vote when things are going OK. This credit crunch thing hasn’t really hit hard yet (and doesn’t seem to have all that much impact on Canada so far). So nobody’s all that bothered. The mid-nineties was the start of the most recent run of economic prosperity.

    Interestingly, voter turnout in the USA has followed the opposite trend, but the increase in voter turnout there over the last couple of elections (and probably this one) can be attributed to the various wars they’ve become embroiled in. Sure, the UK and Canada are involved in that too, but to nowhere near the same extent.

    There’s also the issue of the decreased role of ideology in politics. The difference between political parties in most of the first world has become one of managerial style rather than fundamental disagreement in policy. (And again, the opposite has happened in the USA).

    So low turnout isn’t really because the parties don’t have a chance to put explain their platform, it’s that the platforms are similar enough that, for lots of people, there’s no real difference.

  2. Gabriel says:

    That whole “voters don’t vote when the sun’s shining” thing doesn’t wash. People get excited when there’s a single issue, like NAFTA (1988) was here, but single issue elections are rare and high turnout here had been the norm. Besides, technically things have been going pretty smoothly here since 1867.

    Ideology became the predominant election issue here in 1993 when the centre-right Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, one of our founding political entities, was reduced to two out of 308 federal seats and virtually annihilated.

    Canada is basically a country of thirds. Pre-1993 a third of the country are “right wing” (Progressive Conservative), a third centre (Liberal) and a third “left wing” (New Democratic Party). In order to attain power the party on the right has to attract as many centre voters as it could, therefore it could never stray too far into the right-wing ideology.

    The same for the Liberal Party. To maintain power the Liberals had to attract just enough left-wing voters and a few from the right-wing. The NDP, meanwhile, have been sort of an official unofficial permanent opposition party.

    But in the same election the PC party was decimated their traditional right wing abandoned the party and created the Reform Party. This left the centre-right with only the Liberals as a choice. And in the following elections the Liberals seized on the initial wariness showed by voters towards the Reform, using “secret agenda” as their campaign strategy. And it worked.

    From 1993 until just recently the Liberals maintained a large majority made up of voters from the centre, centre-left and centre-right. The NDP were too far left for most voters, and Reform was too far right so the Liberals could forgo policy altogether and just make stuff up as they went along.

    A few years ago the remnants of the PC Party and Reform merged into the Conservative Party of Canada. The Conservatives came to power for the first time two years ago in a minority government in an election where, again, the Liberal Party tried to use “hidden agenda” as a strategy.

    The Liberal party, also one of Canada’s founding political institutions, is now in danger of becoming as irrelevant as the PC’s as the Conservatives grab more of the centre and the NDP the left.

    There are real and substantial differences between how the Conservative Party wants to govern Canada and how the Liberals want to govern Canada. One example is what kind of government Canada should have… the Conservatives would like to push more power onto the provinces and weaken the federal institutions, whereas the Liberals want a strong central government with less power to the provinces.

    It would have been nice over the past few weeks to discuss the actual political future of this country, but again, 36 days was not enough time to crack through the ideologies and get into the policies.

  3. thordora says:

    I vote Green because they always seem to focus on their platform, and sincerely (as much as politicians can) want to do right by us and our country.

    Of course, if they got a seat, who knows what would happen.

    I want a country alive with a fever for change-I want that. I was brought up with that, and I try to spread it. But FAR FAR too many people as just too far removed, and that saddens and angers me.

    And what do you possibly have against Sweden? :P

  4. scottypruysers says:

    Dude there are so many inaccuracies in your post that I wont get in to. However I would like to point out that the Reform was not created in 1993. It was created in 1987. It was in 1993 that it finally made a breakthrough (winning some 52 seats I think). In fact Deb Gray was in the HOC as a Reform MP in 1989.

    With this said however, I am interested in your thesis of the length of electoral campaigns being correlated with voter turnout. Very interesting!

  5. Gabriel says:

    Thanks and fair enough about the date the Reform Party was officially created, but their history wasn’t the point of my comment, just a quick sidebar. Trying to keep a comment describing the entire history of Canadian politics under 1000 words means skipping a few eras and condensing others into barely recognizable generalizations… which actually kind of adds to my point of shortened time frames leading to a lack of voter knowledge.

    [later: I caught and fixed the Liberals in third place thing… I blame my brain. Just so you know I’m always open to fact correction.]

  6. Thanks for the primer on Canadian politics. I did politics at university, so I’m unnaturally interested in this kind of stuff. I think I did do some reading on it at the time, but that was years ago now.

    Really though, I think you underestimate the extent to which mainstream politics has converged, not just in Canada, but worldwide. Partly this is because all administrations are much more constrained in what they can do than they used to be. Fitting into the global economy, keeping international obligations and maintaining any kind of popular appeal requires a particular set of policies that are pretty much fixed. Large scale changes on the domestic level are also difficult because everything has become much more interconnected. So party politics is about the gaps and the subtleties now.

    This can change given the right circumstances, of course. But mostly it doesn’t. Politics across the globe is much more homogenous now, as has politics within most first world democracies.

    There are important issues at stake, of course, and parties play to their differences, but the character of these issues has changed. Leadership of a state has become much more managerial. It’s about setting the tone and the direction of politics, because substantial changes over the short term are nearly impossible and generally not desirable (they tend to cause splits). In the UK, for example, it took a huge amount of effort and for the Labour government to push through the introduction of (subsidised) tuition fees in universities. And it wasn’t even that big a change. Going to war in Iraq took even more effort, caused a vast amount of internal strife within the government and eventually proved central in bringing down Tony Blair.

    So voters can (and do) expect that no matter who’s in government, things really won’t be that different. Those with strong party affiliations will generally vote for who they always vote for. But the 10 to 20% who don’t consistently vote will only do so when it looks like it will make a big difference, and that hasn’t really been the case since the mid to late nineties.

    I think your ideas about campaign length probably are a factor – but I think the other factors I’ve mentioned play a greater role, and this is something that goes beyond Canada.

  7. David Wozney says:

    How many different choices are there for Queen? How many different possible outcomes, for who is Queen after voting day, do elections involve?

    The executive authority of and over Canada is vested in the Queen.

    Is the act of voting considered to be giving voluntary implied consent to the idea that Elizabeth II is Queen?

  8. Gabriel says:

    Last night Jon Stewert of The Daily Show referred to the Canadian Conservative party as being on the political spectrum next to the American “Gay Friendly Nadarites For Peace” party.

    I think you’re looking at politics through the prism of the European Union. We have free trade agreements but nothing like the EU where national policies must give way to the policies of the Union. Our FTA’s have nowhere near the level of integration between country’s as the EU.

    “…things really won’t be that different…”

    Things are not meant to change quickly in any democracy at any time. That’s the point of democracy, we’re protected from the State by being able to change the government on a regular time frame, and by having opposition party’s and secondary institutions which can slow down change.

    The American system, for example, is meant to prevent change almost entirely.

    “…strong party affiliations will generally vote for who they always vote for.”

    Every party here has its own core supporters, the Liberals — who were the Government for around 70 years of the past century — have generally maintained a core of 35%, but in order to become the ruling party they had to appeal to voters both to the right and left of the core.

    “Leadership of a state has become much more managerial. It’s about setting the tone and the direction of politics, because substantial changes over the short term are nearly impossible and generally not desirable…”

    The issues facing Canadians on a national level are still fairly basic, and political party’s here have diametrically opposed views on where they want Canada to be in ten years. For example, the Province of Quebec, with roughly 25% of the population of Canada, has yet to sign the Canadian Constitution. Even the basic style of federalism remains an issue here.

    Because the Conservative Party is still new, and still seen as a party committed to the policies of its core right-wing, the reactionary elements to their policy’s from the other parties has grown substantially. The anti-Conservative policy’s are more than managerial, just as those from the core Conservative supporters have been. There are fundamental differences between the two sides.

    Because the roll of any political party is ultimately to govern, the Conservatives are gradually moving towards the centre, but the more votes they get the more reactionary their opponents become, and reducing the days allowed to discuss any of the issues facing Canadians to a bare minimum of 36 days every 2-3 years has meant an increase in shouting, screaming and yelling and a decreasing voter turnout.

    Hello David Wozney… actually the Queen’s authority in Canada is nada, nil and nothing. She’s a figurehead and her profile looks nice on money, but Canada does not ask permission of the monarch of any country for anything.

  9. I don’t think I’m being Euro-centric about this. Actually, I think the EU is both a consequence and a cause of policy convergence. Trade agreements are certainly an aspect of it, but I was mostly thinking about international finance rather than regional finance.

    I’d disagree with the idea that democracy is about limiting change – that’s a small-c conservative concept. Certainly in the UK, opposition parties generally have little effect on policy. Only rarely is there a situation where one party or the other isn’t in complete control. The government usually only has problems enacting policy when their own MP’s rebel, which is not a common occurence. The checks and balances of other systems are almost non-existant here, which is also a consequence of there being no separation between the legislative and the executive.

    And things can certainly change quickly when there’s political will to do so. Here, in essentially a single term of office, Thatcher vastly reduced the power of the unions and privatised many of the utilities, both of which were fundamental changes. Note that Canada followed a similar course, commercialising many state assets around the same time. Canada has been less turbulent than the UK in this respect and there haven’t been many equivalent changes, but that has more to do with Canada than with democracies in general.

    Obviously you know much more about the specific goals of the political parties in Canada than I do (I’ve skimmed a few Wikipedia articles on the topic). As an outsider, I do think the issues at stake are rather less fundamental than you do. I think a lot of the Conservative policies are policies of the gaps. But I don’t think these are things I can debate at all usefully, so I should probably bow out of the discussion at this point. I do find this stuff really interesting though.

  10. Gabriel says:

    Not “euro-centric”, but international and regional politics to a Canadian doesn’t necessarily mean the same to someone living inside the Euro Zone.

    It’s interesting… there was an announcement today that the Canadian government and the EU had just released a study into negotiating possibly much deeper economic and political ties.

    “I’d disagree with the idea that democracy is about limiting change…”

    Democracy limits change in two ways: 1. there’s always another election so the population can reverse course, and 2. if a party ever wants to get into power again it can’t change policies the population don’t want changed.

    “…things can certainly change quickly when there’s political will to do so.”

    Political will only comes from the voters. Either a party has to convince them beforehand or afterwards the policy change was a good idea. Thatcher had the majority on her side before and during those changes, but weirdly not after the economy had recovered.

    I think, fundamentally, we disagree on the definition of fundamental. First world nations, economically, are linked together and any change big or small effects the others in the chain. In this sense management would be a good term to use in describing the role of Prime Ministers and Presidents. And even then only in terms of national bank rates and economic policy. They’ve pretty much ignored the day to day stuff over the past few years.

    But within the borders there is still the potential for a great range of policies among the political parties. There are similarities of course. During the 1990’s the ruling centre-left Liberal party “borrowed” many policies from the opposition right-wing Reform/Alliance parties with no outcry from voters.

    But, again, the differences between right and left here are fairly large. At least within the context of being a Canadian or living in Canada.

    It would have been nice to have had a debate on Canada’s involvement in the Iraq war like you guys had, but our Prime Minister at the time, a Liberal, decided on his own that we weren’t going to be involved in any way. At least that’s what he told everyone at the time.

    Ended up, however, that three months before the invasion the American government called our PM and said they didn’t want us involved because our military was in such horrible shape. We would’ve been in their way. Our PM still claims his non-decision decision as one of his legacy moments.

    Our military is in much better shape now.

  11. Democracy limits change in two ways: 1. there’s always another election so the population can reverse course, and 2. if a party ever wants to get into power again it can’t change policies the population don’t want changed.

    I strongly disagree. That’s how it’s supposed to work, not how it does. Firstly, vast amounts of policy is set at a level below the attention of the public, either formally, through the use of regulatory instruments or informally via policy networks. For example, in the UK the penalties for possession of cannabis were slowly reduced long before the government officially reclassified it a couple of years back. This happened because of informal decisions by police officers to favour warnings over prosecutions for small amounts of the drug.

    Secondly, the voters may simply not have a viable option that reflects their wishes. This has been the case in the UK for at least the last couple of decades, where the public have generally been far more Euro-sceptic than any of the political parties. So the political will for significant involvement in the EU has been there in spite of the complete absence of much public support. The barriers to entry prevent new parties from successfully forming around single issues like this. Another example is the war in Iraq, where both the government and the opposition were in favour of the war in the face of vast public opposition. You can’t effectively vote against a policy when there are only two realistic prospects that could form the next government and both of them want the same thing.

    Thirdly, political parties don’t run on single policies. While some voters will vote on single issues, many voters vote for the entire platform. This means that unpopular policies can be pushed forward in the absence of any desire by the wider population to see them enacted. Other voters do not vote rationally and their own interests may not be well served by the party they vote for.

    So yeah, governments can’t just do anything, but there’s a very wide latitude in which they can work to further the policies they choose, even when thse policies are unpopular.

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