Changes the Conservatives are proposing for the Canada Elections Act aren't the best way to get more people casting ballots — especially young Canadians, say the people who study the problem.

Under bill C-23, the head of Elections Canada would have tight restrictions on what he could talk about, limited essentially to how to become a candidate, how to vote and what identification to bring.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand told CBC Radio's The House last week that he would no longer be able to talk about democracy or take part in Student Vote, a national program that allows 500,000 students who are not yet of voting age to vote in a parallel election.

"It's something that should be worrisome," Mayrand told host Evan Solomon about the changes in the bill. "I don't think it reflects a model democracy that Canadians aspire to."

Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform, says political parties are better placed to get people voting, and that Elections Canada needs to do a better job of telling people about advanced polls and which identification to bring with them to cast ballots.

Half of young people, and up to 75 per cent of aboriginal youth, don't know where to vote, Poilievre told a committee of MPs Thursday.

It's 'motivation that matters the most'

But experts say it's not the logistics of voting that deter people: it's a sheer lack of motivation.

"Voting is easy," said André Blais, a professor at the Université de Montréal who studies elections, public policy and political behaviour. Blais has done research projects for Elections Canada.

"The hurdles as such are not big. It’s really motivation that matters the most."

Poilievre said that many of the reasons for not voting are practical, including being too busy or having to go to work or school, numbers he got from Elections Canada's report into the 2011 federal race. The report says turnout was down to 61.1 per cent that year, a slight bounce back from 2008 but still in a downward trend. Youth turnout was just slightly more than a third of all those 18-24: 38 per cent.

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Voters in the Nova Scotia riding of Halifax West line up to vote in the 2011 federal election on Monday, May 2, 2011. (Mike Dembeck/Canadian Press)

"Clearly the public advertising and outreach campaigns of Elections Canada have not worked," Poilievre said.

"Since they came into effect, voter turnout has actually plummeted. And the problem is even more persistent amongst the groups that the campaigns purport to help."

Alison Loat is the executive director of Samara, a non-partisan group working to improve political participation, which last year received funding from Elections Canada worth about one per cent of its budget, and is in line this year for project funding worth about three per cent of its annual budget.

Loat says access barriers are one reason why people don't vote, but agrees with Blais that motivation barriers are both a bigger problem and one that's harder to deal with.

"The more this does to tackle the motivation barrier, the more successful a bill it would be," she said.

'Incapable'

Loat pointed to Student Vote as one of the programs that helps with motivation by running mock elections that get students into the habit of casting a ballot. She says parents and teachers have as much of a responsibility as the chief electoral officer.

Blais says not knowing where to go or how to vote is only a small part of the overall problem.

"I don’t think it’s even one of the main factors. If people are not well-informed, it’s probably because they’re not motivated enough to ask. Because the information has been there," he said.

The report Poilievre cited also found that of those who didn't vote, 57 per cent said they would have if online voting had been an option.

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A voter with a voter information card queues in Toronto on Friday, April 22, 2011 to cast an advance ballot for the forthcoming federal election. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

But the changes proposed in the 242-page bill include making it harder for the arms-length agency to test out online voting, requiring consent from both the House and the Senate.

Poilievre says that's because of the problems encountered at polling stations, discussed in a report commissioned by Elections Canada. 

"As the Neufeld Compliance Review demonstrated, Elections Canada was incapable of managing complex voting systems," Poilievre said in a statement through his director of communications.

"Based on that report, I believe Elections Canada has a lot of work to do to convince Canadians that it is capable of running traditional paper ballot system — and it needs to do this before experimenting with risky, unproven voting schemes."

Poilievre also suggests there's no role for Elections Canada in getting voters to the polls, arguing that political parties are better placed to do the job.

Suppressing the vote

Opposition MPs allege limiting the agency's ability to test online voting, plus eliminating vouching, a process that allows those without the proper identification or voter information card to cast a ballot, is all about suppressing the vote of young Canadians, aboriginal Canadians and others who tend not to vote Conservative.

Blais says the research isn't clear about whether suppressing the vote works for or against any party, or even affects the vote at all.

Despite that, he says Elections Canada should have a role in encouraging people to cast ballots — a role that shouldn't fall to politicians.

Loat cited a study in the U.S. that showed that where participation tended to increase, it was because people were invited to vote by somebody they knew and trusted — typically not a political party, though she says parties are one of five or six actors who should be working on voter turnout.

"I think it probably is unfortunate that there's been curtailment of Elections Canada's role in that area," she said.

Blais says it's not clearly in politicians' interest to increase turnout.

"Their interest is to get elected. And in some cases increasing turnout might help them, in some cases it might hurt them. So they don’t have a clear interest in higher turnout," Blais said.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that stated incorrectly that Elections Canada is slated to provide five per cent of Samara's budget this year. In fact, Elections Canada is set to provide about three per cent of Samara's budget in 2014.
    Feb 16, 2014 7:31 PM ET