Skip to main content

Quebeckers are among the voting champs of Canada. About 71.4 per cent of those eligible voted in this week's provincial election – about three points lower than in 2012, but both of those Quebec participation rates still eclipsed most of those seen elsewhere in Canada. Only Prince Edward Island has a higher participation rate.

Contrast Quebec's turnout with Alberta's (54 per cent in 2012, 40.6 per cent in 2008), British Columbia's (55 per cent in 2013, 51 per cent in 2009) or Ontario's (49.2 in 2011, 52.8 per cent in 2007).

Only Saskatchewan comes close to Quebec among the other provinces: 66 per cent in 2011, and a hefty (by Canadian standards) 76 per cent in 2007.

How does Quebec's turnout stack up against federal elections? You decide. Here are the federal turnout numbers: 61.4 per cent in 2011, 58.8 per cent in 2008, 64.7 per cent in 2006.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, federal turnout usually hovered around 75 per cent. That is an unimaginable rate today, because voting has fallen just about everywhere.

Overall turnout rates mask what's really happening. Voting by older Canadians has held steady, but it's fallen off a cliff among younger voters. Parties know this, which is why pitching to seniors is more politically rewarding than focusing on younger people.

Elections Canada estimates that in the most recent federal election, less than 39 per cent of those 18 to 24 voted. Meanwhile, 45 per cent of those 25 to 34 voted, and 75 per cent of those 65 to 75 voted. Those numbers have remained about the same since 2004.

More alarming still: If people grow up in a family that doesn't vote, they pick up the habit of not participating and pass it on.

If more young people did participate, what party would they choose? Pollsters can probe that question, but until people actually vote, who knows?

For example, here's a little telltale from the Quebec election. An organization called Forum jeunesse runs an electoral awareness campaign for about 70,000 students, 12 to 17, in 350 Quebec schools. Students follow the election, talk about it and are given material from the electoral officer.

Then, a mock vote is taken. Not too long ago, chances are the Parti Québécois would have come first. A few decades ago, the PQ might have won a landslide.

But the mock vote produced a result of Liberals 36 per cent, Coalition Avenir Québec 21 per cent, PQ 18 per cent, Québec Solidaire 13.5 per cent. These students were not of voting age, so the results were hardly scientific. But at the very least, they suggest that the PQ isn't what it used to be among the young. Which, in turn, doesn't bode well for the party's future.

Even with Quebec's above-70-per-cent turnout rate, the province and the rest of Canada rank well down the world tables for voting rates among the major democracies. Much angst has been expressed about this trend of decline. What certainly will not help is the Conservative government's misnamed Fair Elections Act, which will make vouching illegal and remove the Chief Electoral Officer's ability to promote participation.

Civic-minded groups are already springing up to encourage more young people to vote. Certainly, the Liberals and New Democrats will do so, on the theory that younger voters will prefer these parties to the Conservatives, who do best among older voters.

No party goes where 23 countries around the world have gone: compulsory voting. Belgium, Austria, Brazil, Switzerland and Australia are among them, although only 10 of the 23 enforce the law.

In Australia, participation rates are typically around 95 per cent. Those who don't vote without a plausible reason must pay a small fine, around $20.

Fear of the fine isn't the reason Aussies vote. Voting is part of the country's political culture: a duty, a habit, and, in the best Australian tradition, a chance to have a party.

Today, Canadian political parties pitch their appeal to smallish slices of the electorate. If that electorate were made much bigger by law, narrow-casting and wedge politics would be less useful and less prevalent.

Eds Note: An earlier version of this column said about 71.4 per cent of those eligible voted in the Quebec provincial election - about three points lower than in 2011. In fact, it was 2012. It also said Quebec participation rates eclipsed those seen elsewhere in Canada. In fact, voter participation has been higher in Prince Edward Island.