Voter Turnout at Federal General Elections in Canada

By Lavoie, Louis | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Voter Turnout at Federal General Elections in Canada


Lavoie, Louis, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Formerly with Elections Canada, Louis Lavoie is now a consultant on electoral systems.

Possibly the most disturbing aspect of the June 2, 1997 general election was what seems be the start of a downward trend in electoral participation in federal elections from an average of over 75% for many years to 70% in 1993 and just 67% in 1997. This happens at a time when significant changes to increase participation were implemented. Persistent non-voting is on the rise. Is alienation, not just discontent becoming a characteristic of the Canadian electorate? This apparent trend is a serious challenge for parliamentarians. The future of our democratic institutions may depend on their ability to reverse it.

The "simple act" of voting, once a privilege conferred on those affuent enough to own land or pay taxes, has become a right of citizenship enjoyed by practically all Canadians eighteen and over.

Voting in Canada follows the "first-past-the post system". In each constituency, the candidate with the most votes is declared elected. After the results of all constituencies are in, the Governor General invites the leader of the party holding the most seats in the House to form a government, and the leader becomes the Prime Minister.

Canadian parliamentary institutions began to take shape in the second half of the 18th century but the evolution of the vote was by no means smooth or steady. At first, colonial authorities in England determined who was entitled to vote and subsequently the elected local assemblies gained control of the voting function between 1784 and 1801. The principal barriers related to wealth (more precisely the lack of it), sex, religion and ethnicity.

During the 36 general elections, since 1867, an average of approximately 73% of registered electors voted. Turnout has ranged from a low of 62.9% at the June 1896 election, to a high of 79% at three successive general elections between 1958 and 1963.

Voting is the principal element in maintaining public support for a form of government since it is through voting that electors participate in Canada's governance. It is the most efficient and effective way for the vast majority of citizens to register their political views and indicate changes in their preferences. Through the vote, citizens choose who should represent them in Parliament or legislative assemblies and which party will likely form the government. Voter participation is therefore a basic measure of citizens' confidence in the political system.

As the basis of democratic government, the right to vote must not be impeded by law or by administrative measures used to register voters or conduct the vote, nor should it be undermined by the absence of appropriate remedial measures.

Establishment Of A Royal Commission

A Royal Commission charged with Reforming Electoral Democracy in Canada was appointed in November 1989. It had a comprehensive mandate to inquire and report on the appropriate principles and process that should govern the election of Members of the House of Commons and the financing of political parties, candidates and campaigns, including:

* the practices, procedures and legislation in Canada.

* the means by which political parties should be funded, the provision of funds to political parties from any source, the limits on such funding and the uses to which such funds ought, or ought not be put.

* the qualifications of electors and the compiling of voters, including the advisability of the establishment of a permanent voters' list.

The Commission held 45 days of public hearings in 27 cities across the country. It heard testimony from more than 500 groups and individuals and received more than 900 briefs from associations, individuals, political practitioners and election administrators.

Further to its analysis of what Canadians said about the electoral system the Commission suggested six major objectives that should govern Canada's system of electoral democracy:

* To secure the democratic rights of voters

* To enhance access to elected office

* To promote the equality and efficacy of the vote

* To strengthen political parties as primary political organization

* To promote fairness in the electoral process

* To enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. …

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