How the pandemic might affect voter turnout, and Ford's chances in June

Ontario's last election had the highest voter turnout in nearly two decades and sent Doug Ford to Queen's Park. But a lot has happened in four years. What will happen in June, when Ford's apparent ability to energize voters crosses paths with the effects of the pandemic?

Experts aren’t concerned about turnout in Ontario election 2022

Both times Doug Ford has run for a top job — as premier of Ontario and mayor of Toronto — voters showed up to the polls in higher numbers than in some two decades. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Love him or hate him, Doug Ford energizes voters. His presence on the ballot seems to boost voter turnout — which hit a two-decade high when he was elected Ontario's premier in 2018. 

Fifty-eight per cent of eligible voters showed up last time, with the Progressive Conservatives taking just over 40 per cent of their votes.

Ford's populist style, like that of his late brother, Rob Ford, seemingly brought out new voters and sent him to Queen's Park. 

"What a Ford does is, because they're so provocative, because they are able to garner significant media attention, they stand out from the crowd," said York University political scientist Dennis Pilon. 

Will something similar happen on June 2, keeping him in office? Experts are hesitant to make predictions, but suggest Ontarians are as likely to show up in high numbers for this election as they were four years ago.

Ford's populism has attracted those who might previously have been non-voters, political scientist Dennis Pilon. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

The Ford factor

Both times Ford has run for a top job — Ontario premier in 2018, Toronto mayor in 2014 — voters showed up in higher numbers than over the past two decades, though he lost the latter race. 

Pilon says these figures are more than just chance and tell us something about the power he might have to get people to show up to the polls.

Ford's populism has attracted those who might previously have been non-voters, says Pilon. At the same time, he didn't seem to lose a lot of traditional Conservative voters in the last election. 

Fords "give people an ability to participate … whether they're right or wrong, they go, 'I know that guy, I got a sense of what he stands for.'" 

University of Toronto political scientist Randy Besco says Ford had an advantage of coming from a political family with an established brand; his brother was mayor of Toronto, his father, Doug Ford Sr., was an MPP and he himself served as a Toronto city councillor.

"People already know about Doug Ford. They already have formed their opinions of him. And when he starts campaigning, there's not going to be a big surprise," said Besco.

Voters gather at a Toronto polling station during the 2021 federal election, which saw lower turnout than the previous, pre-pandemic election. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Four years ago, many were voting to toss the Liberals and saw a clear alternative, says Pilon.

This time, "what's going to be crucial is the opposition to Ford," he said — whether people, in particular after two years of the pandemic, are similarly unhappy with his PCs.

The provincial NDP and Liberal leaders, Andrea Horwath and Steven Del Duca, are certainly hoping so — despite the Tories' encouraging poll numbers, which are consistently in the high 30s.   

On the other hand, says Pilon, some voters may look at Ford's performance in the pandemic and decide he was stronger than they previously thought. 

Minimal effect

Most recent provincial elections suggest the pandemic has had a fairly minimal effect on turnout.

New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Saskatchewan had turnouts within about three per cent of each preceding, pre-pandemic election. 

Those aren't particularly significant changes, says Pilon, though we might take this as a clue to expect something similar might happen in Ontario.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, turnout was much lower in 2021 when the province pivoted to mail-in voting due to a COVID-19 surge. 

It isn't impossible that a surge in cases could also happen at precisely the wrong time for Ontario, says Pilon. 

A last-minute voter drops off a ballot at Elections NL in St. John's on March 25, 2021. (Josee Basque/Radio-Canada)

Ontario voters have already experienced a pandemic election and turnout in 2021's federal election was the lowest in more than a decade. 

While some have speculated that COVID-19 health and safety concerns might have kept people away from the polls in 2021, according to research from Statistics Canada, that wasn't the case.

Reasons related to COVID-19 — including safety concerns about showing up to vote, being in self-isolation and people unhappy an election was being held during the pandemic — accounted for just two per cent of all reported reasons for Ontarians not voting in that election, according to Statistics Canada. 

But a more common reason for not voting, listed by 30 per cent of Ontarians, was that they just weren't interested in politics. 

Pilon says we need to be careful how we read that response. 

"When people say they don't care about it, they are saying a number of things," he said. 

Elections officials help a voter at a polling station during the Ontario provincial election at a Mississauga voting station in 2007. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

They are often actually saying they don't feel empowered, they lack confidence or don't feel their vote will matter, he says. 

The people more likely to feel this way are more likely to be more economically disadvantaged and traditionally not as included in policy, he says. 

Reaching everyone, including these harder-to-reach voters, is the goal of Elections Ontario, where March is "voter registration month." It's running an ad campaign encouraging people to check their voter information along with number of outreach initiatives and community partnerships to try to make this happen.

Besco says the pandemic — in particular the policies it has led to — might bring people to the polls rather than turn them away.

"For most people, most policies are very abstract. But these pandemic policies are really concrete. They have an impact on people's lives in a really obvious way. So people have really strong opinions about them," he said, and some will take these strong opinions to the ballot box. 


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.

With files from Farah Merali and Kirthana Sasitharan