Reasons for not voting in the May 2011 election

Declining voter turnout is a problem confronting many democracies. In the most recent federal general election in Canada (May 2011), voter turnout was 61%, which is only marginally better than the turnout for the previous election in 2008, 58.8%.

A study by Statistics Canada finds that of the 7.5 million eligible voters who did not cast ballots in the May 2011 election, 27.7% didn’t vote because they weren’t interested. This also includes those who believed that their vote would not make a difference. Another 23% didn’t vote because they were too busy. Ten percent didn’t vote because they were out of town/away, 8.5% didn’t vote because of illness or disability, and 7.6% didn’t vote because they didn’t like the candidates or the issues.

It’s rather unfortunate that Statistics Canada lumped those who didn’t vote because they believe their vote would not make a difference into the same category as those who indicated they weren’t interested in politics. It would have been interesting to know if those who felt their vote wouldn’t make a difference constituted a majority of the “not interested” group. As well, I think these are two very different reasons for not voting, therefore it would have been more informative to leave them as separate reasons. Given that the “out of town/away” option was left separate from the “too busy” option, the “my vote wouldn’t make a difference” option should and could have been left separate from the “not interested in politics” option.

I don’t have much sympathy for those who said they didn’t vote because they were “too busy”. Canadians have opportunities to vote in advance polls, which are generally held on the 10th, 9th and 7th days before the actual election day (this is based on a 36-day timeline, counting down from the issuing of the writs (day 36) to election day, day 0). The Statistics Canada report states that “too busy” also includes family obligations and work/school schedule conflict. Again, I find it rather difficult to believe that these family obligations and work/school conflicts were issues during the advanced polls and on election day. On election day itself, polls are open for twelve hours, ranging from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. depending on which province or territory you live in. There may be some people who work 12-hour shifts that coincided with polling hours, but surely they weren’t the majority of the “too busy” crowd.

Still, there are ways to improve opportunities to vote. In 2007, the Government had introduced the Expanded Voting Opportunities Bill which proposed to provide even more opportunities for Canadians to vote in general elections, by adding two new advance polling days: the Sunday, the eighth day before election day, and the Sunday, the day before election day. While at best a band-aid solution, the bill never even made it to second reading.

A better option to consider would be to adopt something Australia does: allow voters to vote at any polling station in their constituency, rather than at one designated polling place. This way, polling booths could be set up in malls, in the lobbies of businesses, perhaps even in subway stations, etc. Since everything can now be computerised, I fail to see what logic there is in continuing to force people to vote at one designated spot, usually a church basement or school gymnasium, which might not be the most convenient place for many.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with providing voters with even more occasions to vote prior to the actual election day, this won’t do much to address the issue of people simply not caring enough to vote, or not voting because they don’t think their vote will matter.

As I stated above, these are very different reasons for not voting. Someone who doesn’t vote because they think there is no point, that their vote won’t matter at all, obviously is interested in politics and the election. They are simply frustrated by Canada’s continued use of First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) which more often than not returns results that do not reflect actual voting patterns, such as majority governments elected with a minority of the vote. Or they may live in a “safe” riding, where one party is guaranteed to win, no matter who they run as a candidate. Adopting some form of PR, which would result in a parliament that more closely reflected exactly how people actually voted would certainly help people feel as if their ballots did make a difference. Even in parts of the country which are traditionally dominated by one political party (thanks to FPTP), votes cast for other parties would result in seats under PR.

Of course, this would be the most difficult change to implement, not simply because some political parties remain opposed to any form of proportional representation, but many voters are also wary of voting systems other than FPTP.

One of the more curious reasons for not voting must be the “did not like the candidates/issues” group. I can understand not liking the candidates, but not liking the issues? Granted, the May 2011 election was the result of the Government being defeated on a confidence motion following two findings of the Government being in contempt of Parliament, which perhaps some believed wasn’t sufficient reason to force an election, but the campaign itself did not centre solely on that issue.  Many issues were raised during the campaign, but even if none of the issues discussed were priorities for some voters, do they not have an opinion on which party they think would provide the best government?

As for those who are genuinely not interested in politics/voting, there is no simple solution. You can’t force people to care about or take an interest in things. Some might advocate compulsory voting, but I don’t think forcing people who really don’t care about politics to vote will result in better government. There is more to be gained by addressing issues that will encourage those who are interested and engaged to vote, such as reforming the voting system and modernising how, when and where we can vote. Voting via the internet should be looked at – if we can file our taxes and fill out our census forms online, we can probably find a way to ensure secure online voting for a general election.

And who knows? Maybe if Canada were to adopt a better electoral system, some of those “not interested” non-voters might become a bit more interested.

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