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'No quick fix' as voter participation plummets to new lows

Now we will see whether our human-rights law has the same power to bring positive change to natives as it has to the rest of society.

David Lipnowski for The Globe and Mail/david lipnowski The Globe and Mail

Election campaigns nowadays are as consumed with the quandary of dwindling voter turnout as they are with party policies, political leadership and candidate blunders.

Participation at the ballot box hit an all-time low in the 2008 federal campaign, dipping under 60 per cent for the first time. Despite the advent of vote mobs at university campuses and broader use of social media to convey campaign messages, many political observers are concerned the slide will continue when Canadians head to the polls Monday.

University of Toronto political scientist Lawrence LeDuc, a leading scholar on the demographic factors affecting voter participation, has crunched the numbers. He estimates turnout could reach a new low: 57 per cent, unless the political race tightens in the waning days. And he notes it could take another 20 years or so before turnout stops dropping and flattens out, because the decline is part of a generational trend that began in the early 1990s.

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Myriad factors have been cited for Canada's diminishing voter participation, from detached politicians to youth disinterest and election fatigue (this is the fifth federal campaign since 2000). Myriad solutions have also been proposed, including compulsory voting and greater elections outreach in schools and immigrant communities.

"There's no quick fix," said Carleton University political scientist Jon Pammett, an expert on voter turnout.

Dr. Pammett says lowering the voting age to 16 might help because it would give first-time voters the benefit of school and parental guidance. Former elections chief Jean-Pierre Kingsley expects online voting will eventually become a reality, potentially spurring more people to participate.

Mr. Kingsley contends that declining turnout warrants action because it puts the legitimacy of Canada's electoral outcomes and its democracy at stake.

"What will happen if we ever reach 50 per cent?" he questioned. "We simply have to understand why something as vital as electoral democracy all of sudden, inside a generation, is evaporating."

But in a vast land of 34 million people, voter turnout isn't uniform. Why are Canadians in some regions voting en masse while others are largely choosing to abandon their ballots? Prince Edward Island and Winnipeg North offer some answers and possible remedies.

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