Voters, as they say, stayed away in droves. At just under 61 per cent, the 2004 turnout was the lowest in federal election history. The one before that had also broken a low-participation record. And the one before that. Could there be a pattern here?
Voter turnout continues to decline in Canada as each successive generation comes of age. The last two decades in particular have shown a noticeable drop in the number of people turning out to the polls.
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A study by Elections Canada suggests there are many factors that come into play with voters, including weather, apathy and the level of trust people have in politicians and the political system.
The time to start to change that is when voters are new to the system. A major factor in determining whether someone will vote is whether they began to vote at a young age. It's not just that older people vote more, it's that people tend to continue the voting habits they establish when they are first eligible to vote. So, if the young get turned off voting, they are less likely to vote even when they are older.
In the 2004 election, Elections Canada made an effort to attract first-time voters. Those who had turned 18 since the last election received a personalized card in the mail encouraging them to vote. If they didn't register, they received another during the campaign. Elections Canada designed a website for 16- to 24-year-olds to talk about youth voting and involvement in the political system, and sponsored a contest promoted on MuchMusic.
Other organizations, including Rush the Vote and Apathy is Boring tried to engage and connect youth and politicians, through internet activism, concerts and other events.
The moves may have paid off. The turnout for the youngest category of voters (18-21) in the last election was about 38 per cent, up from the estimated 25 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds in 2000. (Elections Canada cautions that these numbers were gathered in different ways. Beginning in 2004, it began collecting information through a sampling of actual voting, as opposed to surveys.)
The number is still small, and any possible increase will take years to significantly improve overall turnout, especially as older generations that are more likely to vote die off. The last election is only 19 months distant from the coming one; the demographics haven't had time to shift.
Something that will definitely be different this time out is the season. Even back in the 1950s when turnout averaged 75 per cent, an August vote in 1953 saw numbers drop. And in 1980, sandwiched between two elections with turnouts of over 75 per cent, a February election pulled just 69.3 per cent of voters to the polls.
Apparently Canadians like the summer holidays, and don't like the cold and storms that come with wintertime. However, very few elections are held in the winter, so it's difficult to tell the statistical significance.
More and more Canadians travel south for the winter each year, and although they can vote by mail, distance may lower their participation rate this time around. About 50,000 voters cast their ballots by mail in 2004.
Elections Canada has conducted studies into alternate electoral systems and voting methods. An international study suggests that countries with proportional representation have a higher voter turnout. Not surprisingly, countries where voting is mandatory also have higher turnout.
Although electronic and mail-in voting could increase turnout, Canada has so far decided not to go that route because of security concerns.
This time out, Elections Canada is repeating many of its efforts with young people, and planning an extra push for snowbirds. They plan to spend as much as $10 million in foreign advertising to ensure that those who have flown south for the winter don�t forget to cast their ballot.
Then all there is to do is wait until election night to see how those efforts pay off.
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance