Where Have All the Voters Gone?

By Howe, Paul | Inroads, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Where Have All the Voters Gone?


Howe, Paul, Inroads


IN THE 1988 FEDERAL ELECTION, 75 PER CENT OF ELIGIBLE CANADIAN voters cast ballots. This proportion fell to 70 per cent in 1993 and 67 per cent in 1997, only to slump further still in November 2000 to 61 per cent. These figures, it now seems evident, are not random fluctuations but a sustained downward trend that deserves careful scrutiny. Where have all the voters gone?

One consistent pattern in surveys conducted around the time of the 2000 election was that younger Canadians were less likely to cast ballots. A turnout gap of roughly 30 to 35 percentage points separated the youngest and oldest voters. The research team running the 2000 Canadian Election Study - a multiwave survey that took place before and after the election - have conducted an analysis of voting patterns in federal elections from 1968 to 2000 to put this finding in context.1 Has turnout among young Canadians always been lower than among older Canadians, or are today's young adults especially likely to abstain? The answer, it turns out, is a bit of both. Younger Canadians have always (or at least since 1968) been less likely to vote than older Canadians, to the tune of some 15 per cent. But the tendency not to vote has intensified among young Canadians born since 1960. In addition to age differences in voting turnout, there is roughly a 20 per cent gap between those born in the 1960s and 1970s and those born before 1945. The fact that young people are not voting nowadays is a function of both age and generation, and the generational effect is the critical one, since it accounts for much of the decline in voter turnout over the past decade. Because newer generations vote less than those that preceded them, the result over time, as these generations assume a greater weight in the electorate, is a steady decrease in overall turnout.

These findings underscore the significance of nonvoting among today's young Canadians. If it were simply an abiding tendency of young adulthood, a phase that each generation passed through on its way to attaining "normal" levels of electoral participation, it would not be especially worrisome. But newer generations are instead staying away from the polls even as they mature, pointing to a deeper problem that will not correct itself with time, and will indeed worsen as they account for an everincreasing proportion of Canadian voters.

The demographic bases of nonvoting also cast doubt on the popular idea that a lack of competition for office is the key reason why Canadians are shying away from the polls. This idea simply does not square with the generational underpinnings of nonvoting. There is no reason to think that those born in the 1960s and 1970s are especially apt to be disillusioned with the stagnation of electoral competition since 1993, and data from the 2000 election study further undermine the proposition. Indeed, young Canadians in that survey were slightly less likely than older ones to agree with the statement, "There is no point voting for a party that will win only a few seats." The same holds true of another barometer of electoral disillusionment, "All federal parties are basically the same. There isn't really a choice."

This is not to say that one-party dominance in recent elections has had no effect whatsoever. The Canadian Election Study team did find, in its analysis of voting patterns over time, a small downward shift in turnout across all age groups. This is more the pattern that would be expected in reaction to reduced electoral competition; one-party dominance, then, probably does account for some portion of the drop in turnout in recent elections, inducing electoral apathy in a small portion of Canadians of all ages. But the greater part of the decline has been fuelled by intergenerational differences in turnout.

Hence, to explain nonvoting, we need to identify the changes that have been conditioning the political attitudes and dispositions of rising generations. Much of the analysis and commentary in this vein, both in Canada and elsewhere, takes its lead from Robert Putnam's analysis of the evolution of American society in the postwar era. …

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