A couple of weeks ago, I started a new series on popular apathy and the decline in popular interest in Canadian democracy by noting that, since 1867, the relative voting power of the average citizen has declined by around 90%. That is to say, each MP is answerable to more than ten times as many voters as they used to be. Under the circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that MPs feel less and less beholden to those who elect them.
The “real” problem which is complained about ad nauseam, however, is not the decline in voting power but the decline in voting. I’m slightly skeptical of Elections Canada’s ability to calculate voter turnout in the early years, but for the record, here’s the history of voter turnout in Canada since Confederation:
Which, I’ll agree, does look like a bit of a crisis. I have to say, I’m surprised that voter turnout was as low as it was in the 1800s, although part of that probably reflects the difficult of getting semi-literate immigrant farmers to the polls in rural areas.
Two things are noticeable, though. First, although it’s too hard to say for sure, it looks as though the catastrophic slide in voter turnout — from 75% to about 60% over the space of 20 years — may be over now. The numbers have kind of stabilized for the moment. Second, the slide has actually been going on since the 1950s, which is also when voter turnout reached its all-time peak. I’m not yet sure how to explain this, but there’s obviously more going on here than merely a matter of disaffected youth tuning out conventional politics, which is the usual explanation.
On that note, it’s certainly true that people my age show a seemingly unprecedented disinclination to vote, and that if they don’t change their minds later in life (and worse, pass on this disinclination to their children), it’s basically curtains as far as electoral democracy is concerned. The moment voter turnout dips below 50%, I think we’re justified in turning out the lights on our almost 200-year-old experiment in Parliamentary democracy. If the majority aren’t interested in ruling, then there’s no point talking about the rule of the majority anymore. More on that in the future.
In the meantime, there is a marginal reason to hope. Elections Canada reported that the 2004 and 2011 election’s voter turnout results were as follows:
It’s fairly gloomy, but one thing stands out. The people in the 18-24 age group in 2004, who had about a 38% turnout rate, are now in the 25-34 age group, and they had a 45% turnout rate in 2011 — only slightly below the turnout percentage for the people who were 25-34 back in 2004. And the people who were in their early 30s in 2004, voting at a rate of 49%, have moved into the 35-44 age group and now vote at a 54.5% rate, only slightly below the rate for that age group in 2004.
It’s alarming to see any decline at all, of course, but there is some scant evidence here that people may decide to vote later in life even if they don’t bother when they’re in their early 20s. Of course, whether they’re capable of voting intelligently at a later age is another matter entirely. I have argued repeatedly on this website that the majority of Canadians probably lack the basic education necessary to be able to form an intelligent opinion about some of the most important political questions of the day, climate change first and foremost among them.Tweet