The extraordinarily low turnout in last week’s Ontario election – at 43 per cent, the second-lowest in any election in Canada, federal or provincial, in a hundred years – came as a shock to many.
But in truth, turnout has been in long-term decline across the country. In the 1930s, provincial elections regularly brought out more than 75 per cent of the vote. In the post-war decades it averaged about 70 per cent. Since 2000 it has plunged to 60 per cent or less. Federal elections have followed much the same path.
It should not need explaining why this ought to be concerning. Democratic governments depend for their legitimacy on a claim to represent the people, having been chosen in free elections in which every adult citizen is eligible to vote. If half or more of those citizens are now declining to do so, it might at least cause us to ask why.
And yet the reaction in many quarters is a yawn. It’s merely a sign of how contented people are with the status quo, we are assured by some. That’s hard to square with the equally confident assertion of others that it’s a valuable form of protest: a pox on all your houses and all that. But if it is a protest vote, it doesn’t seem to be working. The lower turnout falls, the worse our politics seems to become.
Indeed, the more intriguing question may be why so many people do vote, given the many ways in which the system seems to discourage it. When the MPs they elect are largely powerless to represent them, except as approved by the party whips; when the Parliament in which those MPs sit is wholly unable to hold government to account; and when, for upward of 50 per cent of the electorate in any given election, their votes do not help to elect anyone, thanks to our single-member plurality, winner-take-all electoral system, it really is a wonder anybody bothers.
It stands to reason that if we fixed all this – if MPs mattered, if Parliament mattered, if votes mattered – we might see a more engaged electorate. But the chances of any of these reforms being enacted in the short term are slim. And in the meantime, there is a simpler, more direct fix at hand: make voting mandatory.
Though this will strike many as a radical idea, it’s already the law in more than two dozen countries around the world, notably our close cousins in Australia, where it has been in place for more than a century. There are plenty of exceptions allowed, and the penalties are more symbolic than real: a $20 fine. But as a “nudge” it seems to work. Turnout shot up from 58 per cent to 91 per cent in the first election after mandatory voting was implemented, where it has remained ever since.
At this point many people suddenly discover a belief in the ancient and inviolable right not to vote. But mandatory voting does not oblige you to vote for a particular party, or for any of them. You can spoil your ballot, or decline it, or vote none of the above. You just have to show up: get off your duff for 15 minutes or so every four years.
Yes, but why should people be obliged to do even that? What’s the problem this is trying to solve? The problem isn’t just low turnout. It’s that turnout, when it is low, varies wildly among different groups of voters. Young people, poorer people, racial minorities – all are statistically less likely to turn out than others. An election is in this regard rather like a census: a self-selected sample is a skewed sample. Unless you make participation mandatory you don’t get a representative result. And representation is what an election is supposed to be all about.
There’s another benefit to mandatory voting: it eliminates turnout as a factor in the parties’ calculations. Much that is wrong with our politics, the relentless animus and bile, is rooted in turnout-based strategies, aimed either at riling up a party’s own supporters – enough to get them to the polls – or depressing its opponents’ enough to induce them to stay home. When voting is universal there’s no point in either.
Pure individual rights-based arguments properly apply in matters that concern only the individual. But voting is not a purely self-regarding act. When you vote, you are not just deciding how you will be governed, but how everybody will be. You are lending your good counsel in aid of your fellow citizens.
As such it is not only a right but a duty, like serving on juries or paying your taxes – one of the very few a democratic society asks of its citizens, and by far the least onerous. It’s time to codify that duty into law.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.