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Does lower voter turnout always favour incumbents?

A voter leaves a Toronto polling station during the federal election on May 2, 2011.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

When Ontarians were called to the polls this month, fewer than half of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot and the incumbent Liberals were returned to power. Turnout dropped in both Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador as their governing parties were re-elected. So does lower turnout always favour the incumbent?

The answer is not always – but more often than not.

Since Confederation, the re-election of governing parties at the federal level has coincided with a decrease in turnout from the previous election in almost two-thirds of cases. On average, turnout drops by 0.8 per cent when voters return a federal government to power.

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In the nine elections with drops in turnout of 5 per cent or more, the government was re-elected six times. And in only two of the elections since 1926 with a drop in turnout did the incumbent government not come out victorious.

Since 1919, when women's right to vote was recognized, turnout has decreased by an average of 1.4 points in every election won by the incumbent party.

Of course, there are some elections that saw turnout increase and the governing party re-elected. The 2011 election, for example, saw an increase of turnout by 2.6 per cent and the Conservatives given their third consecutive mandate. But in 2008, when the Conservatives were re-elected for the first time, turnout dropped by 5.9 per cent.

The effect is similar in the province of Ontario. In two-thirds of provincial elections since 1937 in which the incumbent was returned to power, turnout decreased. In each of the last two elections won by the Liberals, turnout dropped by more than 3.5 per cent.

The effect is less pronounced in Quebec, however. There, turnout decreased in a little more than half of the elections in which a provincial government was re-elected. But since 1940, when women could first vote in Quebec, turnout decreased by an average of 1.9 per cent when the incumbent party was re-elected.

The provincial Liberals have benefitted most from decreases in turnout. Since 1970, a Liberal victory has come with an average drop in turnout of 3.1 per cent. Turnout has increased by an average of 1.4 per cent with each election won by the Parti Québécois.

The two biggest increases in turnout in Quebec in the last 30 years coincided with the two defeats of Liberal governments. In 1976, turnout increased by 4.9 per cent while in 1994 it increased by 6.6 per cent. Both of these elections came in times when the sovereignty issue was white hot, and is part of a wider trend of higher turnout coinciding with the defeat of a government.

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Since Confederation, turnout has increased by an average of 0.7 per cent in Quebec when governments were defeated, and almost three out of every five cases where the incumbent party was beaten turnout increased.

At the federal level, turnout increased in two-thirds of the elections in which the government was defeated since 1919. Similarly to Quebec, the average increase in turnout was 0.7 per cent in those elections.

Federal governments have been defeated in three of the four federal elections in which turnout increased the most. The most recent was in 1984, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives were swept to power with a six point increase in turnout.

Since 1926, only two governments were defeated when turnout decreased. Both of these cases may be attributed to special circumstances. Joe Clark's Progressive Conservative government was defeated in 1980 when turnout dropped by 6.4 per cent, perhaps due to the previous election having taken place only nine months before.

Kim Campbell was defeated in 1993 when turnout dropped by 5.7 per cent, but this election was an exception in many other ways. Indeed, part of the Tories' historic defeat in that election can be attributed to their supporters not turning out.

That is not to say that the re-election of a government is the direct result of decreased voter interest. Many governments have been re-elected in elections with higher turnout, and in three of the last four changes of government in Ontario turnout decreased. But it appears that the organizational, financial, and psychological advantages of incumbency, already very important, play a key role in keeping the opposition's voters at home – and when there is a thirst for change incumbents can be swept away in the wave of new voters heading to the polls.

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Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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