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Election 2015: The triumph of voter engagement

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What if they gave an election and nobody came?

There are as many ways of winning elections as there are of skinning the proverbial cat. On the democratic face of it you should strive to obtain the most votes. Under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, that is always a debatable strategy because the winner-takes-all results of FPTP produces false majorities in which vote fragmentation elects "winners" that have the support of only a minority of the electors. Thus to proportional representation, however...


Voter Suppression

There's another approach that has been honed to perfection over the past couple of decades by a succession of Liberal and Conservative governments: focus on your "base," get them to the polls, and otherwise suppress the vote. The fewer people that show up at the polls the more consequential the proportion of your base becomes. From this distorted perspective, it doesn't matter how good your policies are, or how well they serve or are accepted by the majority of the population, as long as your supporters vote, others don't, and presto -- you can come out of top!

How is voter suppression achieved? Simple: make politics such a shambolic and distasteful affair that an ever-increasing proportion of the populace simply opts out in disgust and stops going to the polls. Elevate partisanship, foster meaningless squabbling, arrange to avoid consequential issues, dumb down the content, run endless negative attack ads, irritate people with the irrelevant and stupid, don't engage them in discourse just inundate them with formulaic talking points.

There are a myriad of techniques to make politics such a repugnant activity that many people don't want to soil themselves by even approaching it. And such strategies are particularly effective when deployed against younger people, who have little history of going to the polls, and many of whom find the claptrap of the current political game totally out of touch with their values. Voter Suppression 101.

It's not only a great strategy of abject political cynicism to help win elections, it gets better and better. The more irrelevant and disconnected politics becomes the more inclined it is to lead to a death spiral of declining political participation. Win-win!

Now, this may be slightly rhetorically overstated, but perhaps not by much when we examine the graph below, which illustrates the changing percentage of voter turnout in Canadian elections in the 70 years since the end of the Second World War. From highs of 79.4 and 79.0 per cent in the 1958 and 1962 elections, it declined to a miserable 58.8 per cent in 2008. Over 40 per cent of Canadians simply abandoned participating in our democratic system -- ghastly. And Figure 1 clearly shows when the great electoral depression began: in 1993, the first election won by Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, when turnout dropped from 75.3 to 69.6 per cent. And, with the exception of 2006 (more on that below) in the Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper eras that spiral of descent continued for almost two decades.

Figure 1

Now, declining voter participation is not a phenomenon that is confined to Canada; there have been declines noted over the last 40 years in a number of nations in the developed world. The reasons for this appear to be complex. Robert Putnam has argued that turnout (not just for elections, but general reductions in civic engagement) parallel the rise of mass media, particularly television. This is in part because citizens have retreated from social entertainments like bridge clubs, bowling leagues, church groups, to the solitary activity of watching television at home. At the same time, political parties have redeployed campaigning efforts to the TV "air war" and negative campaigning and attack ads have been clearly shown to decrease voter turnout. Furthermore, these impacts are age related: the younger people are, the more disconnected they have become from capital "P" political engagement, although engagement in small "p" political processes such as advocacy, boycotts, and demonstrations has increased.

So, bearing all this in mind, what happened in the 2015 Canadian election?

What happened in 2015

So, everyone knows the answer: the Liberals won. Figure 2 shows the changes in vote share of the various political parties in Canadian elections in the twenty-first century. Several trends are apparent. A notable one is the steady decline in vote share of the Liberal party, from 40.41 per cent in 2000 to 18.78 per cent in 2011. The Liberals had lost more than half their support in a decade and were on a steady track to extinction before leaping to victory in 2015 with 39.47 per cent of the vote share -- virtually back to where they had been 15 years previously. At the same time the NDP steadily increased its vote share from 8.42 per cent in 2000 to 30.41 per cent in 2011, before losing a third of that in 2015 with 19.71 per cent.

Figure 2

The Conservative vote share has done nothing so dramatic, primarily fluctuating around the 35 per cent level, increasing during the Harper years to 39.35 per cent in 2011 before falling to 31.89 per cent in 2015 (Note: for the 2000 election the vote share of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties, that merged in 2003 to form the Conservative party, are combined). Bloc Québécois vote share has fallen from 12.28 per cent in 2004 to 4.66 per cent in 2015, cut by two-thirds in the span of a decade. Green Party vote share rose from a miniscule 0.80 per cent in 2000 to a peak of 6.73 per cent in 2008 but has since fallen in half to the current 3.45 per cent. 

Figure 3 provides a more detailed view of the election year-to-election year fluctuations of voter support. These show increases and decreases in the percentage voter share from one election to another (Note: for the 1997 election, the shares of the Progressive Conservative and Reform parties are combined). From 1997-2000 to 2006-2008 changes in vote share stayed within rather modest bounds not exceeding plus or minus seven per cent. Notable is the very large increase for the NDP in 2011 (the so-called "Orange Wave") where support increased 12.36 per cent (and Liberal support fell 7.31 per cent), and then 2015 where Liberal support surged by 20.69 per cent (NDP support fell 10.70 per cent and Conservative support fell 7.45 per cent) -- very dramatic changes.

Figure 3

But vote share doesn't tell the whole story. Figure 4 shows changes in support for the political parties in elections in the twenty-first century (similar to Figure 2), however, rather than showing vote share, it shows the actual number of votes received. At first glace Figures 2 and 4 look very similar -- and they are -- however, look at difference in regard to the Conservatives. The percentage share curve falls much more steeply in 2015. That's because while the Conservatives lost 7.45 per cent of their share of the overall vote, they only shed 231,905 votes, a mere 3.98 per cent loss of their 2011 level of support. This points us to the central revelation of the 2015 federal election.

 Figure 4

What really happened in 2015

The real story of the 2015 federal election is voter engagement!

Figure 5 shows the changes in the number of registered voters and the number of votes cast in elections since 1997 (in a scale of millions of voters plotted according to the left axis) and voter turnout, as a percentage of registered voters, plotted according to the axis on the right. What this shows are bleak levels of voter turnout in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2011 (averaging 60.5 per cent) with a tremendous increase to 68.50 per cent in 2015.

Figure 5

As noted above, the 2006 federal election was somewhat of a departure in the overall trend of decline. This was the election called as a result of a motion of non-confidence in the Liberal minority government of Paul Martin predicated on the so-called  sponsorship scandal, allegations of criminal corruption on the part of the previous Liberal government of Jean Chrétien related to the misuse public funds intended for government advertising in Québec. This scandal eventually lead to the establishment of the Gomery Commission to conducted a public inquiry into the matter. It appears that the political furor around these events engaged Canadians, and in the 2006 election turnout rose 3.76 per cent.

Significant as this was, it pales in comparison to the 7.39 per cent increase in turnout in the 2015 election. This represents an additional 2,735,945 Canadians showing up at the ballot box -- a very significant increase and a clear indication of the degree to which the 2015 election galvanized the Canadian public. And in large measure, this tells the story of the election outcome.

Figure 6 illustrates that story.

 Figure 6

It shows the composition and origins of each political party's support in the 2015 election. The black bars indicate the 2011 supporters who stayed with each party in 2015. The Conservatives, NDP, and Bloc Québécois all lost support (shown in red), which went to the Liberals. These lost numbers shown in red on the negative side of the Y-axis are indicated in blue, orange and turquoise (respectively) as gains to the Liberal party on the positive side of the Y-axis.

However, had there been no increase in voter turnout (indicated in purple) these shifts of support from the Conservatives, NDP, and Bloc Québécois would not have come close to supplying enough support to the Liberals to defeat the Conservatives, who retained 96.02 per cent of their 2011 vote. Canada would have had another Conservative government, by my calculations a very slender majority of 174 seats (170 seats are now required for a majority government in the 338 seat House of Commons). Had there been no increase in voter turnout Stephen Harper's strategy of voter suppression (capped by the (un)Fair  Elections Act of 2014) would have triumphed yet again. As it was, as Figure 6 illustrates, 2,735,945 more Canadians voted, and the vast majority of that vote went to the Liberal Party (about 1.1 per cent went to the Green Party, and 0.5 per cent to independent (unaligned) candidates).

As for some of the reasons behind that enormous shift of support, readers may want to consult my article, The NDP: Minting a new political currency.

Young people to the polls

One prominent feature of voting disengagement noted previously is the degree to which this disproportionately impacts the political participation of younger Canadians. Following elections (usually a year or so) Elections Canada publishes an "Estimation of Voter Turnout by Age Group and Gender." Figure 7 shows the participation rate according to age categories for the 2011, 2008, 2006, and 2004 elections (Note: In 2004 Elections Canada did not supply a participation estimate for the oldest, 75+ years, age category). The pattern of declining turnout with decreasing age is very clear in election after election (at 75+ years, participation also declines somewhat, presumably as a result of age- and mobility-related issues).

 Figure 7

Electoral participation by 18-24 year olds (averaging 39.3 per cent) is almost half that of 65–74 year olds (averaging 73.6 per cent). This is a very troubling democratic issue. Young people have their whole lives ahead of them and decisions by governments will affect them for all of their lives. Arguably, they have the greatest stake in seeing that things are done well. And yet they have been so much less engaged in the decisions that affect their futures.

It may be the autumn of 2016 before Elections Canada publishes its 2015 "Estimation of Voter Turnout by Age Group and Gender," however it will be very interesting to see if the 2,735,945 additional Canadians who voted in 2015 came preponderantly from a younger demographic. If so, this will be an additionally hopeful sign.

Even so, the results of the 2015 election have already blazed a very important trail. Close on to three million more Canadians engaged politically and thereby completely changed the outcome of the election, from what would probably have been a narrow Conservative majority, to what is a broad Liberal majority (184 seats). Irrespective of your political convictions, this has to be considered a significant victory for democracy. Should this trend continue, in the next Canadian election in 2019 the turnout rate would have returned to the mid 70's per cent participation rate of the 1960's. Our task is to ensure that this is so.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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