Voter turnout and the value we place on government

The federal Conservative majority elected in May was a surprise to many when polls had shown the NDP and Conservatives neck-and-neck in the days prior to the election.

When EKOS Research looked at how they could get the polling outcome so wrong, they came to the conclusion that their polling was right but their forecasting was wrong given the very substantial difference in turnout among age groups.

Among non-voters, EKOS shows the NDP paid the heaviest price, with 32.1 per cent of non-voters supporting the party compared to slightly less than 25 per cent for the Liberals and Tories.

Frank Graves, writing for EKOS Politics, states: “the likelihood of voting is much higher among seniors and declines progressively with age. Notably, we see a very similar pattern of much higher support for Conservatives among senior voters and declines progressively with age. This factor alone is probably the biggest favour which explains why the population of all eligible voters has a lower incidence of Conservative supporters than the final vote.”

In fact, the median age of those who do vote is 60. The actual median age of Canadians is 41.

In the federal election the difference between a minority and majority was a total of 6,000 votes in the key 24 ridings.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives, looking at Graves analysis, said if voters under 45 had shown up in the same proportion as voters over 45, we would likely be looking at a federal NDP-led coalition, not a Conservative majority.

Jessica Nasrallah, writing in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, compared the substantial difference in voter turnout in Canada and Denmark.

While the most recent Canadian federal election saw a voter turnout of 61.1 per cent, Denmark typically has voter turnouts in the 85 per cent range.

There are differences in the system – Canada has a first-past-the-post system, Denmark has proportional representation. The fact that every Dane vote counts is a significant incentive to show up and cast a ballot.

However, the issue goes much deeper than that. Nasrallah identifies a 2002 study of Danes that found 98 per cent of the population believe it is important to have a large majority of voters turnout for democracy to work and 96 per cent agreed that a belief in democracy meant an obligation to vote. 92 per cent said they felt a strong obligation to vote. There was little difference in demographic comparisons among Danes.

Clearly the difference between who votes and who doesn’t in Canada does have an impact on policy and platforms of the parties.

From two-tier wage settlements to skyrocketing post-secondary tuition fees, younger people are paying the price for their alienation.

Is this all inevitable, or are there other forces at play?

EKOS’ Graves asks some fundamental questions: “What if the lack of voting is linked to alienation and conscious political strategies designed to suppress the interest of those voters? What if there is a mutually reinforcing tendency to further weaken “next Canada’s” interest in federal government by virtue of a federal agenda which systematically undervalues and de-emphasises their interests and values and emphasises the interests and values of its constituency?”

In Statistics Canada’s study of the 2011 election, the number one reason non-voters gave for failing to cast a ballot was the fact that they were “not interested” (27.7 per cent). Another 22.9 per cent said they were too busy.

Would we be as likely to see these kinds of responses if we had a culture that valued the role of government and a voting system where all votes mattered? Is right-wing government bashing having an impact on attitudes towards participation in our democracy?

In the Ontario election EKOS predicts Dalton McGuinty will likely find a majority at the end of today by weighting the polling data among the age groups most likely to vote. In the provincial election, it is the McGuinty Liberals who lead among voters over 65 (41.7 per cent compared to 38.8 per cent for the PCs and 17.1 per cent for the NDP). When they looked at their polling results from the May election and did the same adjustment, the numbers were almost dead on with the final result.

Provincially 29.8 per cent of young people under age 25 say they would most likely vote NDP — that is if they ever got to the polls.

By restoring the values Canadians have traditionally placed in the role of government it is possible that the outcome of our elections could be very different. If we underline the role that government plays in our daily lives it would likely lead to a very different set of values being expressed at the ballot.

Then again, the aging baby boomers may favour the status quo that gives them disproportionate power in elections.

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