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Does voter turnout matter?

One of the major (and wholly flawed) arguments in the referendum we endured in Ontario in October was that a change in electoral system would inevitably result in increased voter turnout. While there was no evidence to back up the claim, and the turnout in the referendum showed Ontarions to be completely uninspired by a referendum that should, by its proponents' logic, have had very high turnout, it does raise some important questions about voter turnout in the first place: Is voter turnout in itself important? What does a vote represent? Should there be a "none of the above" option, and what should it do? What can we do to address low turnout in a way that actually improves democracy?

I have more questions than answers, of course, but here are my thoughts on the matter.

1) Why wasn't the referendum's turnout higher than the previous election's?

It's a simple chain of logic, really. If MMP was going to increase voter turnout, then those people who would have come out to vote under MMP, who otherwise would not have voted, should have felt empowered by the referendum to come out and vote in that referendum. Had that happened in any significant numbers, the referendum would no doubt have turned out differently, but people were not inspired by what it offered and turnout dropped over the previous election yet again.

To me, that reinforces the view that while our democracy is severely lacking in participation, it is not strictly about the voting system itself, though there are certainly improvements we could make to it. What happens as a result of the vote is a lot more important.

2) Is voter turnout in itself important?

Many people will jump on this question and say "but of course!"... but is it? I think the question is a lot deeper than that.

We currently give our voters every opportunity to vote in every election. There are mail-in/absentee ballots, advanced polls, laws to ensure sufficient time off to cast a ballot, and substantial marketing of the balloting date, among other points I am likely forgetting. But in spite of this, voter turnout drops each election.

There are, in my view, two mutually exclusive ways to interpret the dropping turnout. The first is a satisfaction with the status quo, and the second is a dissatisfaction with the status quo. In the first, people trust their peers to make electoral decisions for them, being content with whatever decision is made. I include general apathy in this category. In the second, there is a feeling of disconnection between the vote and the results, a feeling that the vote that is cast won't make a difference regardless.

To me the subtext of the question really should be: are votes informed? I would much rather have a 40% voter turnout where most of those voters have taken the time to look into the differences between the candidates and decide which one best represents them and their views. The alternative is 100% of voters turning out to vote, with large numbers of them voting for the prettiest face, the best slogan, or the slickest campaign. None of those factors have any effect on how the winner will govern, or what they believe, yet they are the most tangible aspects of a disconnected voter's vote.

This leads me to my next question.

3) What does a vote represent?

When a voter goes to the ballot box to cast a ballot, what does that vote represent? For a significant number of people, the vote is for the person or party for whom they have always voted. While this is very appealing to political parties, it is an extraordinarily broken way of choosing a government. Non-judgemental loyalty to a party, rather than support for the candidate who best represents the voter, takes away the fundamental objectivity needed to choose a government that will govern as well as possible. For another large section of the voting public, a vote can be a vote for the prettiest face, best slogan, or slickest campaign.

I believe the segment of the population that votes completely objectively based on concrete factors of the history, present actions, and plans of a candidate is quite small. So when a voter does not cast a ballot, what does it really mean? I don't know. A tellingly small handful of people register their disgust with the options by showing up and spoiling their ballot, rather than lending their support to any candidate.

4) Should there be a "None of the above" option on the ballot, and what should be its effect?

It is my view that, in a representative democracy, a voter who is unsatisfied with all options on the table has an obligation to run. As such, I don't believe a "None of the Above" option is, philosophically, appropriate, as it says that not only does the voter not agree with any of the options, but is saying that he could not do any better. It is therefore incumbent upon a voter to select one of the options on the ballot.

That said, I consider some electoral rules and practices to be undemocratic, and a hindrance to the implementation of that philosophy. The presence of a political party's name on the ballot suggests that we not only accept that many people are not voting based on the substance of the candidate, but that this is ok and we should therefore give that voter a way to cast a vote without being sufficiently informed to know anything much about the candidate. This system presents a liability to independent candidates as they are fighting to get their message out to an audience that may not be interested in listening, and without the backing of any political party's organisation. A campaign's organisation and its ability to "get out the vote" are inherently undemocratic as a victory can be far more related to the quality of the volunteers and campaign staff than the quality of the candidates themselves or their ideas. The other problem is the deposit that most jurisdictions charge its candidates, generally a significant sum. If a certain percentage of the vote is achieved, the deposit is returned. It is intended to block frivolous candidates, but it creates unnecessary barriers to entry to those who have ideas rather than organisation.

So, with those problems, a "None of the Above" option may indeed be necessary for people to express discontent if they are not going to seek the office themselves. In this case there has to be a defined result for a "None of the Above" victory in the election.

That is, if more people vote for "None of the Above" than any of the candidates, what should happen? The easiest and most obvious answer is that the electoral district will go without any representation whatsoever until the next election. Perhaps that is indeed the best option, as it would give voters a chance to ask themselves seriously, is having no representation really better than the options presented?

5) What can we do?

Mandatory voting, a solution employed by some countries and advocated by some people, is, I submit, inherently broken. It does encourage voters to vote, but it does not address the fundamental question of whether the vote was an objective, informed vote, or a subjective one based on the abstract factors of the prettiest face, best slogan, slickest campaign, or a completely random selection, and does not allow the lack of a vote as a deliberate statement.

Adding a "None of the Above" option could serve to give voters an opportunity, as I mentioned above, to ask themselves: is no representation at all better than what we have? If the answer is yes, then our system is a lot more broken than I thought. I rather suspect though that such action would bring back to the forefront what having a democracy is all about.

Voter turnout has been dropping steadily in most democratic countries over the last half century. This is well known. Could one cause of this be that our democracies have not, collectively, been threatened lately? Nothing makes a person more appreciative of something they have than losing it, and with our democracies having remained stable for so long, they are largely taken for granted by the voting public. Having a "None of the Above" option that actually results in the loss of representation would be the first real threat to their democracy that most people would have felt and would likely, I suspect, result in higher voter turnout -- and few "None of the Above" votes -- the next time around. The often expressed belief that public policy has no impact on an individual could be rather seriously challenged by a total lack of representation.

Many people advocate for a change in the voting system as the solution. While my opinion of the first attempt of that offered here in Ontario is well documented and need not be rehashed, I believe that it could, indeed, have an effect, but only a minor one, and only with an appropriate choice of alternative.

I do not believe that it is the voting system that keeps people away from the polls, but rather cynicism about what happens after they have voted. We can all go to the polls and vote for an excellent candidate in our riding, but if elected as a member of a party, everything they stand for and everything we voted for can be changed on a dime once they arrive in their parliamentary seat. It is the party structure, the party whip, the party line, and the discouragement of public intellectual discourse by party members that creates that cynicism. The only people who have any real effect on policy are not the voters or indeed the election's winners, but the small proportion of the population that take the time and effort to join a party and work on its collective policies, along with the party's leadership.

Members elected to a parliament should, before all other considerations, represent their constituents and not their party, and be free to exercise the judgement their constituents have opted to trust. To me, using one's own judgement is an important aspect of representing a constituency. A failure in judgement should result in a defeat at the next election.

The only aspect of the voting system that I believe needs changing to decrease cynicism is the abolition of the single-choice ballot. Vote splitting and the strategic voting that results means that we spend far more of our voting time voting against, rather than for, candidates and ideas. A system that disempowers party structures and empowers voters to make an honest choice with minimum strategy and maximum principle is integral to reducing cynicism of the voting system. Preferential balloting is my preferred solution, currently employed in Australia's lower house, but changing the voting system will not on its own solve the problem. Weakening the party structure and strengthening the actual power of a vote will begin to.

So, is declining voter turnout a problem?

I don't know, but an uninformed, disinterested vote is a problem. Getting people involved and understanding the issues, having their say and having it mean something to them would be beneficial to democracy as a whole. Forcing people to vote or encouraging turnout for the sake of turnout really would not solve much other than to help us all feel good about what we will cynically call "public participation".

Posted at 14:20 on April 09, 2008

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

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Laura writes at Wed Apr 9 17:10:20 EDT 2008...

With regards to the appearance of the candidate, there was an interesting study last year in P.N.A.S. dicussed in New Scientist.

The study gave the unidentifed faces of pairs of gubernatorial candidates prior to the 2006 election to students who were asked to make a gut judgement of "Which person is more competent?".The more competent candidate as judged by the students was the winner in 70% of the races.

What does that say about appearances?

Matt (queer-liberal.blogspot.com) writes at Wed Apr 9 18:07:59 EDT 2008...

David, first let me say turnout was poor for the referendum because many voters had been given little information on which to make a decision. Elections Ontario's so-called education campaign gave basic clinical differences b/n the two systems, but failed to explain the consequences of both systems. Plus supporters and opponents had no ability to communicate effectively with voters. Most objective people I spoke with told me they could barely get through the complex info provided by Elections Ontario, it was so dry. I think the campaign was designed to bore people. One fairly informed voter told me he didn't vote in the referendum because he had no basis for making a value judgement on either system, even though he had read through the Elections Ontario stuff. (He did vote in the election though). It was a fiasco designed to fail by the government from the beginning. The government purposefully left Ontarians largely ignorant of their choices and then held the referendum. Big surprise - the status quo wins. So I wouldn't point to the referendum as anything more than an exercise which answered a simple question: will voters embrace change they don't understand over the status quo, whatever it may be?

Although I will admit that MMP or other voting systems won't necessarily increase voter turnout. I agree with you on that. I'll also agree the referendum made it clear voters don't care much about voting systems that much. They heard enough negative stuff about the new system (those pesky lists) and decided not to take a huge leap of faith, especially if Ontario seems just fine as is...

The main reason we have lower turnout is voters aren't happy with their choices. McGuinty-vs-Tory-vs-Hampton = 52% turnout. The stakes were higher in 2006 and we got a higher 65% turnout as Harper had improved from 2004. Take Alberta this year: a boring, but adequate Tory leader and 3 very uninspiring opposition parties translates into a pathetic 41% turnout.

If voters feel an urgency, like the need to turf out a government, and/or are inspired by their choices, they will turn out. Thus I predict very low turnout in the next federal election, sadly. Unless Dion really turns it around b/n now and then...

shoes writes at Wed Apr 9 18:39:16 EDT 2008...

cdlu, Great post, thoughtful and well argued as usual

You are right-on about the uniformed vote.

Some thoughts

I still don't understand why we wasted all that time and effort on MMP when preferential votes would address may of the concerns about votes not counting.

I am intrigued by your 'none of the above' and if it "wins"..no representation. Wouldn't that possibility encourage more (thoughtful) voting?

You comment about cynicism (or skepticism?) provides me with the opportunity to opine on why it's increasing.

I believe the press has to take some responsibility

When the press (all media) without hesitation label all politicians as pork barrelers, liars, dishonest..whatever, that is bound to have an influence on perceptions...and they do it all the time. I think there are stupid, dishonest reporters and editors...but they all aren't.

Second, the media love conflict to the point if there is no conflict...no reports. The result is a lot of insignificant stuff gets beaten to death in the media and often the big important issues get ignored.

A timely example. The Mercury is chasing the city treasurer's firing / retiring yet the East-Guelph / York lands study which is gearing up its 3rd stage gets not one word. Which story is more NB to the future of Guelph?

Another? The Lafarge property..the only reason the Merc is there to report a pissing match between the developers and and NIMBYS. Proposals like yours that try to explain and look to the future get short shrift. Gotta have conflict as opposed to balanced comprehensive coverage of the issues.

As an aside..if you worked for a daily newspaper (as reporter or editor)...why would you blog?

I know there is good stuff being done by our elected folk in city hall, QP and Ottawa. Would you ever hear about? No, the press / media isn't interested in good news. I am far more interested in the debate around the aimal welfare legislation than the endless twaddle about what some guy blabbed about on a 16 year old video. Go figure.

No wonder many of us are turning to the internet and searching for facts and with some critical thinking deciding for ourselves and leaving the newspaper (and newspaper blogs) in the box.

stageleft (www.stageleft.info) writes at Sat Apr 12 20:39:40 EDT 2008...

I read, and reread, this post.... and wrote, and rewrote, a lengthy comment, but was unsatisfied with it each time until I came up with the short version of what I had been trying to say in many words.

Unless compelled to do so by the state people will only vote if they think that their vote will make a difference. Only those with some measure of hope that what they are doing may in some small way actually help chart a course favourable to their way of thinking, their societal desires, and their personal values, will go to the polls.

The turnout numbers we have seen recently simply reflect our societies faith in the system they now live under - and it is low.

Ralph Anderson (www.magma.ca/~ralphdsl) writes at Mon Apr 14 16:48:55 EDT 2008...

I'd like to comment on your questions. I'm trying to be short on each but I will go on and on.

Does voter turnout matter?

Yes. It matters to every candidate/party. Each wants their supporters to vote and it's best for them if everybody else doesn't vote at all. But you can't tell anyone that. If I was a party worker and I saw 54% turnout and my party got 40% of that vote, my candidate has a good chance of winning (21.6%) and I'd say we did a great job.

Why was the turnout lower for this election with the referendum?

It was more of the same. The parties got something out of it, the people did not. The voters were not invited to decide, they were invited to divide.

Is the turnout important?

Yes. A good turnout slows the bullies down. A good turnout proves that the system invites all the people to vote. Trust and respect for the voters opinions is reflected in voter turnout. I would like to be trusted to decide on my representation (not theirs), and I would the government to respect my opinion on what they should be doing (but they will not let us vote on that). If my vote really counts as one vote, and we are all equal, then I can understand majority rule (IRV does that much better than FPTP).

What does a vote represent?

All we have is a vote on district representation (Ontario and Canada). There are better ways to decide a province's mandate than adding up 107 FPTP winners in Ontario to see who's got the most. And as much as Matt may want to vote of leaders like McGuinty, Tory and Hampton this is not a republic, so don't even try.


It must not count in a vote on representation. We should vote together on representation. Ideally this is a representative of the people in a district, not the representative of a party. NOTA is useful in a "preferendum" with multiple choices like some suggested that the referendum should have been. A province wide decision by the voters. But no, we didn't get that. NOTA in a preferendum would allow the voters who stay home to be declared as supporting the decision of the "informed" vote. It would mean that the NOTA voters would have to show up, shut up or find their own candidates for next time.

What can we do?

The referendum got 4 million people thinking about electoral reform, that was a good start. It is clear to me that a party in power elected using FPTP, one district at a time, will not be aiming at majority rule for the people any time soon. A separation of mandates would be better than the confused question we get on Voting Day. If you vote for a leader, and I vote for a promise (or two) and another person votes for a particular candidate in the district who invariably stands up after the election and always says that their party has a mandate to govern? Give me a vote on representation, give me a vote on party promises and let our representative who get into parliament figure it out from there.

Is declining voter turnout a problem?

Yes, it's a sign that the bullies are winning. As I wrote in my submission 1002 to the Citizens' Assembly, the problem we have is in the ballot we use and the question we are asked.

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