Democracy in Canada- Part I

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Written by Noel Mano

Elections Canada and Statistics Canada have released a number of reports in recent weeks concerning the turnout and demographics of voter participation in last October's general election. More will come later in the spring and summer, but the data available at present are illuminating, and in some cases, a little surprising. Overall voter turnout was 68.3% nationwide, but this concealed some larger regional variations. Provinces/territories like PEI, NB and the Yukon saw turnout of 78, 74 and 76% respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, places like NL, NWT and Nunavut saw turnout far below this average, at 61, 63 and 59% respectively. ON, meanwhile, finished with turnout close to the national average, at 67.8%. In the riding of Guelph, this figure was 70%.

 With figures like these, just under a third of eligible voters did not bother voting in the federal election. This was, to recap, following the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history, fraught with controversial pronouncements. In the run-up to the election, the Conservative government's Fair Elections Act was feared to have an impact on voter turnout, specifically on turnout of poor and minority voters. This tightened voter ID requirements, and notably made it almost impossible to vote by having one's identity vouched for. Recall also that there was a period during which Elections Canada was unsure about the usefulness of these cards in light of the new law.

 After each election, there follows a period of national introspection, as the country’s governing apparatus and civil society groups try to understand the dynamics surrounding the casting of ballots. To this end, Statistics Canada put out a report on Feb 22 that aimed to gauge why citizens didn't vote in the 2015 general election. This report begins with a slightly contradictory statistic; it uses the proportion of Canadians who reported they voted in the election, which comes out to 77%- notably higher than the Elections Canada figure, which is based on counting the number of eligible ballots against the number of voters on the rolls. Regardless, the top reasons given for not voting were: 'no interest in politics' (32%, and a subset of ‘political reasons’), followed by being 'too busy' (23%).

 Stats Can goes on to investigate differences in the reasons for not voting between different demographics. It finds that there are no notable differences in the reasons for not voting between men and women, or between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. However, 'there were differences across age groups, regions and immigrant statuses'. To comment on these, Canadian-born voters were most likely to report a lack of interest in politics, compared to 25% if immigrants who had been in Canada for more than 10 years.

 There's an interesting middle section in the Stats Can report which looks at a group of 'everyday life or health ' reasons for not voting. 24% of non-voters said they did not cast a ballot because they were out of town, or having an illness or disability. The latter increased in frequency among older age groups. Provincially, residents of ON, MB and SK were the most likely to report being too busy to vote.

 What of the FEA? Its influence on this election was likely most felt by another group of non-voters, at 8%, who cited reasons related to the electoral process. Stats Can groups several issues under this broad heading:

  • Could not prove identity or address not on voters list;
  • transportation problem / polling station too far;
  • lack of information about the voting process; lines were too long;
  • issues with the voter information card.

 While 8% is the national average, among voters 18-24, 11% reported not voting for these reasons, a margin Statistics Canada considered noteworthy. In the run-up to the federal elections, the Canadian Federation of Students put out this video, warning that students and the young would be especially vulnerable to being shut out of the process due to the Fair Elections Act. However, a comparison with available 2011 data that is most analogous suggested that the proportion of young non-voters who cited these access barriers was slightly higher then (13 or 17%, depending on if you include lack of knowledge from the 2011 Elections Canada data) than it was in the most recent election, suggesting that the worst fears of the CFS didn’t come to pass. (This comparison is not exact; for an explanation, see below)

 Taking the data across the board, 8% of voters not participating is still not an insignificant number. If this 8% had been scattered across a number of the close seats in the GTA, one could conceivably imagine a Liberal or Conservative minority government. The point is, a not insignificant number of Canadians did not cast a ballot because basic processes regarding the accessibility of voting could not be made to work for them (or were deliberately denied them, based on your point of view). It doesn't seem that the FEA resulted in a massive suppression of the vote, but the aggregate numbers could suggest that some people found voting difficult last October, and this certainly merits taking a closer look.

 Let’s move briefly to the cost of electoral victory, data and analysis of which came out more recently, and which might offer some hope for those who worry about the influence of money on Canadian democracy. These fears were also exacerbated by another section of the FEA that increased contribution limits to parties, candidates and nomination and leadership contests, both from external sources and from the contestants own pockets. The Canadian Press’s analysis suggested, again and again, that spending the most did not win you a seat in the House of Commons. 31 out of the 50 top spenders lost their election bids, with just six losing to another candidate in this highest echelon. We see this in Guelph, where two candidates for the seat were among their party’s top spenders: defeated Green Party candidate Gord Miller spent the most of any Green candidate to place fourth to the Liberal winner, Lloyd Longfield, who spent about $15,000 less than him. Money definitely played a role, however: a candidate who didn’t keep pace with the rest of their competitors’ spending almost certainly lost.

 Ultimately, while there are reasons still to worry about democracy in Canada, some of the often cited concerns seem not to be as problematic as often thought. Granted, the most recent federal election was a bit of an anomaly, as they come, but the people still own the process. Hold the Liberal government to its promise of electoral reform, and we can be sure to have preserved it further.

 Note: The comparison in the 7th paragraph does not use the exact datasets for comparison, because Statistics Canada did not include the 2015 metrics surrounding the electoral process in the construction of its 2011 dataset. Therefore, the 2011 National Youth Survey from Elections Canada was used instead. I would argue that the data is reasonably comparable: In clearly identical categories, the percentages are similar (traveling or away- 14% of 2011 NYS respondents and 11% in the 2011 StatsCan dataset; motivation factors- 33% of NYS respondents and 34.2% of StatsCan respondents, the latter of which has had the did not like candidates number added in to match up with the NYS categorization)

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