Canadian election: What's the best way to increase voter turnout?

With the federal election a month away, voter-engagement advocates are are once again trying to get out the vote, but Canada is not the only country that has problems getting its citizens to turn up to vote.

Some places use incentives, like raffles, while others dole out consequences, like fines

In the run-up to the Canadian election on Oct. 19, voter-engagement advocates are once again trying to get out the vote. The last time more than 70 per cent of Canadians voted in a federal election was in 1992. (Reuters/Canadian Press)

For three consecutive federal elections in the late 1950s and early '60s, more than 79 per cent of Canadians cast a ballot.

Since then, election day participation rates have been declining. The last time more than 70 per cent of Canadians voted was in 1992 for the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, a series of proposed amendments to the Constitution.

As we gear up for another federal election on Oct. 19, voter-engagement advocates in Canada are once again trying to get out the vote.

But low voter turnout isn't just a Canadian problem. Many nations around the world are grappling with how to entice people to come out on election day.

Some countries opt for fun and festive approaches, with celebrity promoters and vacation lotteries, while others take a more sombre tack, imposing fines or threatening incarceration for those who fail to vote.

Penalties for non-voters

Political scientists say there are a number of arguments for why more voters is a good thing. For example, it would give under-represented demographics a better chance of being heard, and force political parties to appeal to a broader swath of people.

One of the more controversial methods to boost engagement is compulsory voting.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 12 countries mandate voting with varying levels of enforcement. In a handful of countries, such as Bolivia, voting is compulsory, but it's not enforced.

Some nations demand non-voters offer a legitimate reason or pay a fine. In Australia, non-voters face a roughly $19 Cdn fine. In some areas, people who refuse to settle the fine can be jailed.

Some nations penalize non-voters through civil rights infringement or disenfranchisement, like withholding some social services from people who don't have proof of voting.

Concerts and raffles

Aside from compulsory voting, there are six main ways to increase voter turnout, says Jon Pammett, who co-authored a 2006 report for IDEA on initiatives from around the world.

They include information campaigns that address how to vote, advertising campaigns that focus on why it's important and grassroots movements that home in on a particular demographic, such as youth or specific nationalities.

Some governments or groups implement educational programming, like Canada's Student Vote. The program runs alongside Canada's elections and allows youth below the legal voting age to cast a ballot in a mock election. In 2011, nearly 600,000 students voted and elected a minority Conservative government. (In reality, the country chose a majority Conservative government.)


Do you think it's important to vote? Does your sense of civic duty, care for the environment or commitment to public safety prompt you to head to the polls?

Take CBC's Pledge to Vote challenge to share you commitment to cast a ballot on October 19 and explore why other Canadians feel compelled to do so.

Pledge to Vote is an online mapping tool and election engagement project made in collaboration with Google.

Some voter engagement campaigns leverage the power of entertainers to rally a sense of democratic pride.

Rock the Vote, a non-partisan organization founded in America in 1990 by people in the music industry, showcases celebrities to encourage young people to register to vote. For the 2014 mid-term elections, rapper Lil Jon sang Turn Out For What in a video with cameos by stars from GleeOrange Is the New Black and Girls, explaining why they vote.

In 1998, during Slovakia's parliamentary elections, an NGO created a similar initiative, Rock Volieb. It featured rock concerts and a voter awareness bus tour. The year before the election, first-time voter turnout was estimated at about 50 per cent, according to the IDEA report. By the time of the election, it had risen to 80 per cent by the election.

If the end goal is simply to entice voters to show up, perhaps the most logical method is to run a lottery, says Pammett. 

It's been tried a few times before. In 1995, a municipality in Norway gave away travel vouchers for a sunny getaway in exchange for proof of a vote. According to the IDEA report, Bulgaria held a lottery during its 2005 parliamentary elections in which it raffled off a car, as well as some smaller prizes, including cellphones and computer equipment.

While these approaches can be successful, Pammett says they are "kind of looked down on often as not being very ... proper."

More voters may not be enough

David Moscrop, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia's political science program, is concerned mandatory voting and other engagement tactics don't necessarily create more informed voters.

"At the end of the day, what we want isn't just more turnout," he says. "We want a fair, more representative parliament, and we want fair, more representative policies."

He's concerned about whether civic education should come before attempts to galvanize voters.

"Do we want to try to educate citizens and then get them to turn out, or do we want them to turn out and then try to educate them, or do we want to try to do both at the same time?"