Who Is To Blame For Low Voter Turnout Politics Essay

23 Mar 2015

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Democracy is the most favorable form of government in today's world. It's being said that we all should work hand in hand in order to make decisions on certain political matters and that can only be made possible through participation which is voting. Our right to vote is guaranteed in Canada under section 3 of Charter of Rights and freedoms [2] but many people don't exercise this right. But if they had not been granted this right, they probably will feel offended and divested. Regardless of Section 3, Canadian voter turnout in recent years has been disappointing and not very reassuring. In past few decades, there has been a gradual decrease in voter turnout in Canada. Turnout has dropped significantly since 1988. In 2000, the turnout reached lowest mark ever but the record was further broken in 2008 federal elections [3] which raised eyebrows of all political parties and further raised questions and concerns whether Canadian democracy and the electoral system are effective enough. A number of scholars and political scientists argue that we need to bring in a new effective electoral system in order to increase voter turnout and government and policy makers have also commenced ways to improve Canadian democracy. This paper examines the voter turnout in past few decades, reasons for decrease in voter turnout, including cynicism and apathy of voters and various possible reforms in order to make Canadian democracy more effective.

Voter turnout can be described as when registered voters vote and when registered voters marked a ballot during elections. It is calculated by dividing number of valid votes by registered electoral districts [4] . It doesn't count rejected ballots or spoiled ballots. Voter turnout is really important in determining people's confidence and satisfaction with the government, political parties, and their policies. It is also a good sign of healthy democracy. High voter turnout legitimizes the government's authority over people. Voter turnout also reflects people's interest in politics and decisions being made by political members on their behalf. It also shows civic literacy among people in regards to political issues. Increase in turnout will decrease inequality among social groups [5] . But the big story in news from past two decades is decrease in voter turnout. From 1945 to 1988 Canada has enjoyed high level of voter turnout [6] . Since 1988 it has decreased significantly, with the lowest mark in 2008 federal elections. It was 75 % in 1988 compared to 64.7% in 2006 and 58 % in 2008 [7] . Canada has enjoyed very high voter turnout until 1988. Voter turnout in Canada is low compared to other countries such as Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand and United Kingdom [8] . The questions that arises is why do some people vote and others don't enjoy this privilege. Why is it so low in Canada? This question has been a hot topic and central to many political scientists and political research [9] .

Possible Causes

This can be due to cynicism and apathy of people. People are very pessimistic about what government does and there is an absence of enthusiasm in people. Recent studies argue that voters felt cynical, disappointed, dissatisfied and there was a sense of disempowerment. People think that government wastes a lot of time and money rather than making right choices for common good. Its bureaucracy and decisions are made by bureaucrats. They make decisions based on their own interests. Politicians are dishonest, self-centered, unaccountable, lack integrity and accomplish very little [10] .

Lots of research has been done on this particular topic by various authors, political scientists and agencies but no specific or static reasons were explained or they are yet to be revealed. Each study revealed different aspects, different reasons and circumstances for low voter turnout. Lots of those studies revealed variables independent of cynicism and apathy of voters. There are lots of other possible causes for lower voter turnouts. These factors range from personal reasons to age and gender. Voter's lack of involvement because of disinterest in elections is one of the main causes of low voter turnout [11] . They usually think that their votes are meaningless and hence will not make any difference if they don't vote. But people seem to have forgotten that every vote counts and every vote makes a difference. That being said, one of the reasons behind this thinking is that government usually proposes referendums during elections and these referendums reflects a change or proposes a particular constitutional measure. A good example would be Charlottetown Accord, 1992 [12] . People who are not involved in voting are unaware of these referendums and hence delay all the changes that would have otherwise been considered as positive changes. Also people are less likely to find the parties, their policies, candidates and appealing leaders [13] . Every party proposes few legislations and policies that they will implement after they have been choosen. Reason why people don't find these policies appealing is because those policies don't meet their expectations and totally meaningless to them. People also don't find their leaders charismatic. If we look at the census, Liberal party has made majority government most of the times. Liberals had some exceptional leaders such as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien and these leaders have had charisma. They attracted people towards them because the policies they discussed before elections, implemented most of them [14] . Current government has been criticized by everyone for not coming up with strategies to fight economic deficit and fighting recession. Action plan was developed but it did not have much impact [15] . Another reason that can be considered responsible for low voter turnout is personal or administrative components of voter's life [16] . Voting usually takes place during daytime and weekdays. Most people go to work or school or are unable to vote due to various personal problems. Sometimes, their electoral district is too far from work and they are unable to vote. A lot of people are also preoccupied with their families, kids and other family responsibilities after hours and are unable to go down to their constituency and vote. In conclusion, these reasons could be the few basic reasons that led to decline in voter turnout.

There are few other controversial reasons which affects voter turnout. Timing is considered one of them. It has been said that people are usually away during summer time on vacation and winter weather conditions can deter participation. It also explains cross sectional variations. Weather conditions do have an effect on voter turnout [17] whereas statistics Canada doesn't provide any such evidence. Also none of the other studies provide any evidence for this argument with further research. Elections have been conducted at various days, various months [18] . Television and turnout is another controversial reason but there hasn't been much debate on this particular topic. It has been said that TV is a revolution in democracy and it gives people clear understanding of trends and issues but it has reduced voter turnout. TV has reduced radio's efficiency which is really effective in rural areas [19] .People use their leisure time in watching TV rather than listening to political agendas on radio. They spend more time in entertainment as opposed to focusing on informative aspects [20] . No other studies provide such evidence. Socio-economic characteristics also affect voter turnout. Turnout is high in advanced countries. Advanced countries are more likely to participate in their countries' matter and decisions [21] . Other factors include changing times and values, religion, long authority of one political party, political disaffection, gender, education, origin etc [22] 23.

Lower Youth Participation and Enhancement

Even though these factors play significant role in voter turnout but not all political scientists and scholars agree on them. They all seem to agree on two main reasons that have a huge impact on voter turnout in past as well as in recent elections and these reasons are youth electoral engagement and Canadian Electoral System. Less participation of youth or apathy among youth can be a possible reason as discussed by many political scientists [24] . Politicians and government are concerned about why young people don't participate in elections or if they do, why their turnout is so low as compared to other age groups. The turnout between age group of 18 to 24 is still relatively small. Knowing that fact that it has been decreasing, actual reasons behind this are still foggy and poorly understood. In 2008 federal elections total turnout was 58.8% and lowest turnout was among age group of 18-24 with 37.4% [25] . Youth in Canada don't involve themselves in Canadian Politics. More research needs to be done to find out what motivates young people. Centre for Information and Research on Canada, at one instance mentioned:

"Many young adults are highly mobile, and so less rooted in their communities and less aware of community needs and issues. For these reasons, they are likely to be less interested in elections. But as they grow old, it generally assumed that they will become more likely to vote" [26] 

But politicians and government aren't that optimistic as young voters are moving away from politics. This can be determined by looking at enrollment of student in Political Science courses at University level. It has been gradually declining [27] .

Youth must be encouraged to participate in elections. Young voters' tendency to vote needs to be understood. Also Canadian leaders or parties should directly address Canadian youth during elections [28] . Seminars or multimedia campaigns should be conducted for young people to educate them and make them more aware of Canadian political system and how to participate in it. Round table discussions in colleges and universities would be an effective step in civic literacy of youth and parents must discuss politics with their children at home and it will definitely enhance their politics skills. Also students must stay in school and schools should offer political science courses or make them mandatory or compulsory [29] . New experiments and tests needs to be designed to increase voter turnout not just among youth but overall population [30] . We need to give profound consideration to Canadian youth and their needs. Much needs be done in order to over come this matter.

Electoral System and Possible Reforms

Although electoral system is not the sole problem for low voter turnout, it has been blamed primarily for citizen's apathy and cynicism. Canada's current electoral system is based on single member plurality or most commonly known as First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) at federal, provincial and municipal level. In this system, a single individual is elected from a riding to represent citizens of that electoral district. Member who receives most votes becomes Member of Parliament. There has been an ongoing debate on whether Canadian electoral system should be changed. Advocates of this system argue that it produces stable majority government [31] whereas other political scientists argue that we need new system as it is outdated. There have been lots of problems with current Canadian electoral system including: regional polarization, fairness, under-representation of women, democratic alteration [32] . Once again, advocates replied by saying that there is no solution to regionalism as population is sparsely divided in provinces. There is not much that government or political parties can do in order to overcome that unequal distribution of population. Arguments were also made on proportional representation electoral system by saying that it can create unsought results such as political fragmentation, coalition or minority governments, cabinet instability etc. They further mentioned that there's no guarantee that voter turnout will go up if Canada introduces new electoral system and also it's not going to have any effect on representation [33] . Survey was conducted by Elections Canada to find out whether people are satisfied with current electoral system. There weren't too many variations in the results i.e. on one hand people want to give up current electoral system and at the same time try proportional representation system [34] .

In recent years, electoral reform proponents are willing to introduce Proportional Representation in Canada. It is a primary substitute to Single Member Plurality [35] . According to this system, each member will get his/her share or a seat based on shares of votes they get, regardless of whether they get highest number of votes or lowest number of votes. This will give a fair and equal chance to all the members who are riding for that constituency. Also voters wouldn't think that their votes are meaningless. They get to choose member of their choice. Proportional Representation has two categories: List System and Single Transferrable Vote [36] . Buy as usual; Proportional Representation has its critics. Critics argue that this will create many small new parties within the legislature, will produce unstable government by giving an opportunity to radical parties to represent themselves and not all constituencies will be covered [37] .

Most democracies in world today use Proportional Representation. Voter turnout level is beyond exception in countries that are practicing proportional representation. It has been widely considered that Proportional Representation will have a huge impact on Canadian political system which includes more representative parliament, reduction of regional polarization, no single party majority governments; equal representation of all members from various constituencies, Prime Minister will have less power, federal and provincial balance [38] . Research has also demonstrated that Proportional Representation will lead to high turnout [39] . Provinces such as British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick have considered this option and have taken appropriate steps to introduce this system among community members. Ontario also introduced Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) System which can also be as another alternative to our current electoral system. Mixed Member Proportionality is mixture of local elected districts member and members elected on provincial level from party list. It gives options to people to choose two members at same time, one from party and second a local candidate. It will create stable parties, equal representation, fair election results, accountability; stronger voter participation etc [40] .Alternative vote can also go hand in hand with Proportional Representation. Under alternative vote people have to rank the candidates based on their preference and candidate much receive 50% vote and candidates will lower number of votes are automatically dropped out. Hence number of votes goes up and number of candidates goes down [41] .

Electronic Voting is another big alternative that can replace our current electoral system. Surveys conducted have demonstrated that Canadians favor internet voting, especially youth. All provinces have high approval rate. It has been considered the best method to increase voter turnout, even better than Proportional Representation [42] . Another surveys conducted by Toronto Star have revealed high approval rate [43] . It will be a lot easier for people to vote online and very reliable. It will solve the problem of those people who can't make it to their electoral districts on voting day. People can regularly provide feedback through surveys about government policies at federal, provincial and municipal levels. Critics argue that internet voting will create legal concerns. Research issues can also lead to failure of this internet voting. In addition, security issues can come into play and resolving these security issues can put extra burden on the budget as it will cost lost of money [44] .Another concern with this is people who are computer illiterate, or people who doesn't have access to computers but the Government is planning to test this system by 2013.

Compulsory Voting or Mandatory Voting could be another alternative. In this system, all voters must register and obliged show up on voting day. They still have the choice of not to vote. Fines or other sanctions will be imposed if they don't show up. Many advanced democracies are using mandatory voting such as Australia, Belgium, and Brazil. Voter turnout is very high in these countries. Proponents of this system argue that this will increase voter turnout, election campaigns can focus more on issue rather than teaching people about electoral system. This can also enhance people's participation in political process other than voting [45] . Compulsory voting critics argue that people will vote just for the sake of voting. This will not express their opinions. It is an undemocratic way to vote and it infringes their charter rights under section 3. Majority of Canadians are against this voting system. Penalties can be expensive for people who cannot afford to pay. It also doesn't address questions of low voter turnout and civic literacy among citizens [46] .

Lots of different proposals have been discussed by various political scientists which includes civic literacy among people. People should be taught about politics. It can be done through media. Countries with high civic literacy have high voter turnout [47] . Other proposals say that Permanent Residents should be allowed to vote as they make good amount of Canadian population. Being Permanent Resident, they cannot do certain things and voting is one of them. Critics argue that this infringe section 3 or charter of rights and freedoms and keeps valuable and experienced people away from participation which further declines their interest in politics [48] . More opportunities for people's participation in politics should be developed. Diversity should be increased i.e. women and visible minorities. Government should also keep citizen's demands in mind and should work on them. Public opinion surveys should be conducted each year to find out satisfaction in government. Public opinion and overall good should be preferred while making diplomatic decisions.

Conclusion

Voter turnout has been decreasing. Efforts are being to find out the reasons behind it. Different authors, scholars, political scientists use different opinions and views to explain this trend. We must change low voter turnout trend and electoral reform could be a revolutionary idea. Canadian democracy must be improved by putting more emphasis on citizens needs. People should be encouraged to engage in politics through civic literacy. Reforms are not yet being implemented but there's a good chance that they will be looked upon and tested in future. As Canadians, its upto us whether we want to see a change. Research is yet being conducted to reveal what underlies beneath, offer practical solutions and overcome this problem.



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