What if they called an election and nobody came?
It appears we’re getting perilously close to finding out.
This is turning out to be quite the historic year in Canadian politics.
Only three times in history have candidates been elected to the House of Commons with voter turnout below 20 per cent and all have happened in the past five months, all three in Alberta.
Since almost 60 per cent of Labrador voters turned out to elect Liberal Yvonne Jones in 2013, the trend lines in byelection turnout have been almost unrelentingly heading downward.
In three Toronto-area votes, the high water mark was a 38 per cent turnout in Toronto Centre.
On Monday, Yellowhead, once the riding of former prime minister Joe Clark, barely hit 16 per cent turnout and chose Jim Eglinski with 7,884 votes out of an eligible 78,481 electors (a number that could climb when election day registrants are added).
In other words, 84 of every 100 eligible voters in the riding couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot and Eglinski arrives in Ottawa having won the support of 10 per cent of eligible voters in the riding.
That’s a wave compared to his seatmate David Yurdiga, who took Fort McMurray-Athabasca in June after winning seven-per-cent support among those eligible to vote. Turnout there was an all-time low, 15.4 per cent.
The same night, Macleod sent a Conservative to the Commons with a turnout of 19.8 per cent.
Are we witnessing the demise of democracy?
Should we go mandatory, marching unmotivated, uninformed voters to the polls in a democratic chain gang?
Should we move immediately to online voting, offer lovely gifts for those who trudge to polling stations, reward those who participate in democracy with gold stars they can flaunt the next morning in the office?
Last summer’s record low was blamed on a long weekend, a transient population and the heat.
This year, apparently it was too cold.
But if you lived in Yellowhead, what exactly would get you to the polls?
The result was a foregone conclusion and your riding and your country remain unchanged today.
For those who fret about voter suppression and ennui in our democratic process, there is a lot here to keep you up at night.
But it does not necessarily portend more of the same in next year’s general election.
So, let’s look at other undeniable trends.
In the 11 byelections since Justin Trudeau became Liberal leader — the 11 contests held with the three current leaders — his party has increased its percentage share of the vote in all 11. They also flipped two seats back into their column.
Of course, the party was coming off its worst electoral showing in history in 2011.
Conservative vote share has dropped in all byelections, although the government lost only one seat it held. Byelections are an opportunity to send a message to a government without worrying about changing the government.
New Democrats under Tom Mulcair have nothing to spin. They lost the only one of those 11 seats they held and increased their vote percentage in only Toronto Centre. They plummeted into oblivion in Whitby-Oshawa on Monday and Mulcair’s body language in an encounter with reporters Tuesday said it all.
The Conservatives have now seen their vote share dip in all 15 byelections since Stephen Harper formed a majority government in 2011.
So, surely we can surmise that the NDP will return to the wilderness, the Conservatives will be humiliated and Trudeau and his Liberals will surge to power?
The last time Canada had a majority government, there were 12 byelections under the Jean Chrétien Liberals and the government actually increased its vote share in seven of the 11 they contested (they gave a Canadian Alliance guy named Harper a free pass in Calgary Southwest).
They were still reduced to a minority in the subsequent federal vote, then quickly fell out of power.
Liberals should feel bullish about their chances in 2015 and New Democrats might be tempted to update their resumes. Conservatives should take these trends seriously.
But I wouldn’t analyze myself down a rabbit hole, either.
Byelections provide lifeblood for pundits and strategists. They provide numbers and trend lines.
But these sideshows are fundamentally different than general elections and the temptation is to place too much stock in them.
The trend lines tell us eventually no one will vote in Alberta. That won’t happen. And things will not play out precisely along byelection lines in 2015.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.