For the fourth time in five years, politicians are clamouring for an issue to justify sending Canadians to the polls.
Will it be employment insurance? Too boring and technical. Afghanistan? So 2006. Isotope shortage? Not as sexy as it once seemed. Crime? On the decline. The legality of the 2008 election? Still before the courts. Saucy political scandal? It’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper we’re talking about here, not Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi
Regardless of which issue the parties ultimately deem paramount in their annual battle for Canadians’ hearts and minds, a 2009 federal election is destined to be much like its 2008 predecessor: an exercise in futility.
Barring a dramatic turnabout in political fortunes, no federal party has the necessary support to form a majority government.
There are millions of reasons for that, chief among them being the uninspired and, worse, uninformed Canadians who boycott the polls.
It’s ironic that Afghans are willing to run a gauntlet of IEDs — and risk having their ink-stained fingers chopped off by the Taliban — to exercise their voting rights in a flawed presidential election, yet the very nation that helped to clear the roads and provide the ink are becoming increasingly apathetic about politics in general and voting in particular.
Low voter turnout is not a recent phenomenon in Canada. The number of registered voters who have cast ballots in Canadian general elections has been declining since 1993. But it has become more pronounced with the spike in election frequency.
In October 2008, voter turnout fell to 59.1 per cent, a record low. Voter apathy was particular acute in Alberta, where only 52.9 per cent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots. Only Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland and Labrador had fewer registered voters show up.
The numbers are disheartening and quite possibly meaningless. As Andrew Heard of Simon Fraser University argues in his analysis of historical voter turnout in federal elections and referenda from 1867 to 2008, Canada’s aging population and the lack of an accurate registration of eligible voters makes it difficult to compare voter turnout in elections present and past.
Moreover, the number of votes cast as a percentage of the Canadian population has been fairly consistent — ranging from 40 to 50 per cent — since 1935. Even 2008’s record low falls at the bottom end of that range, he notes.
That said, Heard singles out one group that is voting in far fewer numbers than they did three or four decades ago: people under the age of 25.
Henry Milner of the Institute for Research in Public Policy raised concerns about the trend’s long-term consequences in 2005.
Young people are dropping out of the political process in large numbers, he argues, because they lack the basic information needed to distinguish among the choices. If allowed to prosper, these dropouts will eventually replace aging Canadians with established voting habits, accelerating the decline in voter turnout.
Milner’s recommendations to encourage healthy voting habits in young people include civic education classes at ages 15 and 16, lowering the voting age to 16, fixed election dates and adopting a proportional representation electoral system.
Whether Milner’s proposals will halt the slide in voter turnout is debatable. And what better forum to do that than during election campaign.
Given the utter lack of compelling reasons to send Canadians to the polls in 2009, Harper, Ignatieff and Co. may yet find a way to avoid an election, although it seems more like a foregone conclusion with each passing day.
But if the politicians must have an election, if only to reaffirm that fewer and fewer Canadians are in the habit of voting, then at the very least they can pause for a moment on the IED-free campaign trail to address meaningful electoral reform. Perhaps that would give Canada’s uninspired and uninformed voters a reason to dirty their hands in politics.
If not, there is always 2010.
Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.