Voter turnout hits all-time low

Amid a campaign that was deemed by most to be uneventful and unmemorable, there was one thing that made Oct. 6’s provincial election historic. The record-low in voter turnout.

Only 49.2 per cent of Ontarians who were eligible to vote cast their ballot, marking the first time the province’s history that less than 50 per cent of the voting population decided the election’s outcome. The Ontario Liberal party won 53 seats, one shy of a majority government, with support from just 18.4 per cent of the total number of eligible voters in the province.

The turnout of this election continues a downward trend in Ontario’s recent elections as the previous record-low came in 2007, the last time the province went to the polls, when only 52.8 per cent of voters participated.

“It was a lack of excitement,” said Wilfrid Laurier University professor of political science Barry Kay on the all-time low in voter turnout. “The [party] leaders are the ones who basically set the tone and set the policies, but I don’t want to say that it was just them to blame…. There were not policy alternatives between the parties that really distinguished them that people in large numbers could really relate to.”

With this election following May’s federal election so closely, a term that was thrown around frequently in the lead up to Oct. 6 was ‘voter fatigue.’ This is the belief that with two – and for a large portion of the province three, including last October’s municipal vote – the electorate was overwhelmed with politics and therefore decided not to participate in last week’s provincial election.

However, according to Kay, it’s much more simple.

“That’s just a way of saying people weren’t interested,” he said when asked about ‘voter fatigue.’ “We can be judgmental about the fact and say ‘isn’t it too bad’ but I wasn’t surprised. I thought turnout was going to be down just because there was nothing that was exciting people.”

According to many experts, the most disturbing trend to come out of this election’s low voter turnout was the continued lack of engagement of younger people.

“Young people are not voting. They’re not paying attention, there’s a general problem with what we call disengagement,” said Peter Woolstencroft, a professor emeritus of political science from the University of Waterloo.

“There’s lots of reasons for it and it’s not particular to Ontario or Canada, it’s happening around the Liberal democratic world. I think the most compelling explanation is that young people have not been exposed to the importance of citizenship, the idea of being involved in the political life of your community.”

In Woolstencroft’s eyes, democratic participation is something that should be instilled in children from a young age.

“It should be happening in elementary and high school,” he said. “I think the primary problem lies in the schools, they’re not addressing the importance of being a citizen.”

Woolstencroft noted that a possible solution is to move to a mandatory voting system, like the one that exists in Australia. Since 1924, it has been compulsory for all Australian citizens over 18 to vote in state and national elections.

“I’m a believer in compulsory voting,” said Woolstencroft. “I think we have to say to citizens, ‘you don’t have the right to refuse to be on a jury, you don’t have a right to refuse to vote,’ unless you have strong religious reasons.”

Kay meanwhile, opposed instituting compulsory voting, however said that one thing that can get people involved in an election are compelling candidates.

“There was a break in the trend, Obama’s election in ’08 was a tick up,” he said. “It was successful because he was bringing people out to the polls who perhaps didn’t vote in elections before. So an exciting candidate or a certain issue can make a difference but this time in Ontario we just didn’t have that.”

On Thursday Oct. 6, Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) students went to the polls for the third time this year. This time around, to cast their ballot in the Ontario provincial election.
With Canadian voter turnout on the decline, especially among youth, the Wilfrid Laurier Students’ Union (WLUSU) felt it was particularly important to motivate the student vote on campus.

WLUSU worked with Elections Ontario to provide students with information on the mechanics of voting, and inform them of their options.

“It was a two-pronged approach that we were going for,” said Sean Madden, vice president university affairs and president of Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

WLUSU hosted an on-campus leader’s debate, attended by the four major parties and shaped by student questions. Cross-platform comparisons were published on the WLUSU social networking website, as well as handed out to students on campus.

Arrangements were made between WLUSU and Elections Ontario to easily facilitate voting for students living in residence, and an online proof of residence form was offered for students living off-campus.

The WLU Young Liberals took part in the election efforts by means of literature drops and bringing Kitchener-Waterloo MPP Eric Davis to campus for canvassing.

“One of Eric’s best polls was around the campuses, and I think that’s because he put the time and effort into speaking to the students. That’s something that not a lot of politicians do,” said Drew Redden, president of WLU Young Liberals.

Advanced polls held on campus generated a turnout of almost 400 students, while election day polls garnered roughly 450 students, Madden estimates.

“Polls on a whole were busier even though every indication says voter turnout across the province went down,” said Madden.

Despite the efforts made at WLU, voter turnout across the province hit an all-time low, with only 49.2% of eligible voters casting their ballot. Specific statistics on youth voter turnout have not yet been released.

Geoff Stevens, political science professor at WLU, speculates that electors may be experiencing fatigue with their third election of the year. He suggests that neither the issues at hand nor the candidates captured public interest or attention, all of which may be a cause of the low turnout.

“Nobody had any charisma and there was no excitement. God knows leaders running in Ontario make Stephen Harper look exciting, which takes some doing,” said Stevens.

Stevens suspects that youth turnout will mirror that of the rest of the province, in spite of the parties’ attempts to engage youth by means of policy platforms targeting the cost of post-secondary education.

“It’s a big risk to target your biggest policy at a group of the population that doesn’t have a great electoral record for voting,” said Redden.

When asked about the provincial election, WLU students had many reasons that barred them from the polls, ranging from apathy to structural barriers.

“I had a lot of class that day so I didn’t have time. I wasn’t registered and it looked like there was too much to worry about to register, so I just didn’t worry about it,” said Brandon Wellwood, a second-year geography student.

“I didn’t have a proof of address,” said Jennifer Wu, a third-year music major.

“I find that my vote would be pretty useless. I don’t know enough about it and would just be voting based on pretty colours,” said Ben Friddrich, second-year geography student.

Some others, such as Diana Cappa, a fourth-year global studies student, did however make a conscious effort to cast their vote.

“It’s our civic responsibility. Look at Syria and Libya right now, there are people dying for that vote and we’re just walking all over that,” said Cappa.

Though it seems that the movement at WLU was generally successful, the overall provincial turnout puts that into perspective. Stevens suggested that a rise in voter turnout will be unlikely in the coming years unless the system shifts online.

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