High Potential for Low Voter Turnout Could Influence Election

High Potential for Low Voter Turnout Could Influence Election
People arrive to cast their ballots at a polling station in Shawinigan, Que., in the last federal election on Oct. 21, 2019. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)
Lee Harding

The remnants of the pandemic, the lack of a rallying issue, and disillusionment in the base of traditional parties could mean another election of low voter turnout, say some political scientists.

Federal voter turnout reached all-time highs exceeding 79 percent when John Diefenbaker was prime minister, but it hasn’t exceeded 70 percent since 1993. Geoffrey Hale, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge, sees no indication that that will change this time around.

“Overall voter engagement data appears relatively normal: about a quarter of electorate engaged, and a larger plurality watching the spectacle, such as it is, in passing, and the remaining third largely disengaged as usual,” Hale said in an interview.

“The low turnout in Nova Scotia's recent provincial election suggests that calling an election ‘just because you can’ doesn't necessarily mean the voters will show up in droves.”

Roughly just 55 percent of Nova Scotians participated in the Aug. 17 provincial election, though that was up slightly from the record low in 2017.

Janet Epp Buckingham, a professor of political studies and history at Trinity Western University, doesn’t foresee a reversal in political apathy for this election.

“I expect voter turnout to be low. There is low trust in our democratic institutions. Voters do not trust politicians to fulfill their campaign promises. There is a general malaise,” Buckingham told The Epoch Times.

“That said, I think people are frustrated at having an election now and that might be enough to mobilize people to get to the polls,” she added.

Duane Bratt, political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said that although this election is competitive, he is not expecting a high turnout.

“Overall, voter turnout has been trending low. There has been the odd jump; 2015, there was a big jump, particularly with a lot of traditional non-voters coming out for Justin Trudeau, but I don't see that occurring now,” he said in an interview.

Voter participation was 67 percent in 2019, slightly less than in 2015. That year, 57 percent of those under 35 voted, an unusually high amount. In the past three elections, participation was lowest in the 18 to 24 age group and rose with every age bracket until age 65-74. In 2019, 79.1 percent of those in that age range voted.

Taking a Pass or Making a Switch

Hale says some partisan voters are disillusioned enough that they may stay home or choose an alternative. In the case of the Green Party, initial data suggests “Green voters are more disengaged than the average voter—something that may be rational given the orgy of infighting that has beset the party in the past year or so,” he said.

He adds there's a “somewhat larger segment of the electorate than normal that is considering fifth-party voting, especially on the right.”

“I passed two electronic billboards on Macleod Trail in Calgary yesterday promoting the People's Party ‘because the other choices suck.’ So there are certainly groups that are trying to play into this narrative.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s embrace of a carbon pricing scheme and his reach for central and eastern Canadian votes may have alienated hard-core western conservatives, Hale says.

“Provincially, at least in Alberta, when Conservative voters are unhappy, they don't vote for someone else, they stay at home. And I think that is a danger facing O'Toole, particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan."

"But there are other conservative options for those voters as well," he says, such as the People’s Party and Maverick Party.

The federal Liberals’ deep deficits, potential restrictions on free speech, and mandatory vaccination for federal workers and federally regulated travel could alienate classical liberals. Time will tell whether those voters will take a pass or make a switch.

There's also the threat for Liberals that the NDP may eat into their voter base.

“The great Liberal fear has always been some of those voters going NDP, and I think Jagmeet Singh is trying to woo that. There's this sense of excitement and a sense of fun around his campaign now, even though from a policy perspective, it looks like the old NDP, but just with a with a happier, more confident face that Singh did not campaign on in 2019,” he said.

Then again, some traditional NDP voters might identify less with the party than they used to.

“It's not the NDP of Ed Broadbent. That's for sure,” Bratt said.

“The NDP can't take itself for granted. They've really transformed themselves from what we would call the old left of the Workers’ Party to much of the new left that focuses on social issues and environmental issues as opposed to workers’ issues.”

In fact when it comes to workers’ issues, many of those voters may find the Conservatives more appealing, he said.

“Erin O'Toole is taking on the mantle of workers … by talking about putting union reps on the board of directors of companies. So it's almost like O'Toole has grabbed that worker vote, or is attempting to, from the old NDP.”

The COVID Factor

Voter apathy might express itself differently in certain provinces and not just among certain parties. In 2019, 75.4 percent of eligible Prince Edward Islanders cast ballots, compared to 58.2 percent in Newfoundland and Labrador. Those two provinces have represented the two ends of the spectrum of participation in every election since 2008.

“We are seeing signs that the campaign will play out very differently in different regions,” Hale said.

“Absent a single galvanizing issue, with two of three national leaders underwater in public approval ratings, it is not unreasonable to expect a lower than usual turnout, especially if COVID-infection numbers keep rising into September."

Bratt also wonders how the issue of COVID-19 infections will play out.

“We haven't seen a big serious outbreak yet, but the potential exists for that, and what happens if that occurs in one part of the country and not in another part of the country?”