Editorial | Low voter turnout hurts democracy. All parties should fix it – WellandTribune.ca
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To all the problems associated with Monday’s federal election, add this: it will almost certainly end up as having one of the lowest turnouts in modern times.
Not the lowest. That dubious honour belongs to another snap election, the one Stephen Harper called in 2008. Only 58.8 per cent of eligible voters showed up for that one.
The votes are still being counted from Monday (all those mail-in ballots) but the latest figure shows a turnout of just over 61 per cent. Better than 2008, but significantly down from 2019 when 67 per cent voted.
This is no surprise. Elections Canada warned long before the vote was called that a pandemic election would pose special problems. It would be harder to find safe places for polling stations, and harder to recruit election workers.
All that turned out to be true. So there were about 1,000 fewer regular polling places across the country, forcing many voters to travel farther to cast a ballot. Add pandemic restrictions (distancing, extra health checks) and the result was those hours-long lines to vote we saw in downtown Toronto and other places on Monday night.
No wonder more people didn’t bother to turn out, or gave up when they saw the long lines. Add to that the fact that no one — including the Liberals, who after all called the election — could offer a good reason for why we were voting now at all. It was a ready-made formula for apathy and cynicism, which is pretty much what we ended up with.
This matters for some very basic and obvious reasons. We want citizens to be engaged in our democratic exercises, however flawed they might be. If we’re going to fix those flaws, people have to care about the outcome and how we reach it. If they turn off and simply abandon the process to the angry, agitated minority, nothing good will result.
We also know that when turnout goes down, it doesn’t go down equally across the board. The young, the poor, the disaffected are more likely to turn away. And once they decide it’s not for them, it will be that much harder to persuade them to come back.
The blame this time lies mainly with the Liberal government. It was their choice to call an election at this time, and they made it worse by deciding on the shortest possible campaign allowed by law — 36 days.
Before the election call, the head of Elections Canada, Stéphane Perrault, said he hoped the government would decide on the longest allowable campaign (50 days). He said the extra two weeks would give the agency more time to find suitable polling places, send out voting information cards, make sure voting would be pandemic-safe, and generally encourage more people to cast a ballot.
But the Liberals wanted to strike when they thought they had an advantage, so they ignored his advice and went for a short campaign. That’s on them.
Elections Canada made some big mistakes, too. It didn’t help the situation by cancelling its “Vote on Campus” program, which encouraged students to cast their first vote by putting polling stations on university and college campuses. And that wasn’t a last-minute decision; the agency cancelled campus voting back last autumn, effectively giving up on a sizeable chunk of the youth vote long before the pandemic election was called.
Even more disturbing, Elections Canada somehow managed to have no election-day polling station at three remote First Nations communities in the Kenora riding, with a total of 1,600 electors.
The agency reportedly arranged with local leaders for advance polling at those communities on Sept. 13, but many residents were shocked to discover on election day that they couldn’t cast a vote. Imagine if that had been done in communities anywhere else, no matter how remote.
With any luck the pandemic will be history by the time we have another federal election. So there’s time to try and head off another failure like this one.
The biggest way to improve turnout would be to hold elections when there’s actually a good reason for it, but that’s up to our political leaders. There’s no legislative fix for that.
But the Trudeau government did have one good idea that it should revive once Parliament goes back to work. In the last Parliament it proposed a bill to hold regular voting over three full days — Saturday, Sunday and Monday — in addition to advance polls and mail-in ballots. The idea was to make it easier to vote and avoid those long last-minute lines.
The bill was bogged down in pre-election partisan manoeuvring, but the government should revisit the idea and work with the other parties to find the best solution well before the next election call. If ever there was an opportunity for politicians to show they can cooperate for the common good, this would be it.
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