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Historical Voter Turnout in Canadian Federal Elections & Referenda, 1867-2011

 

Voter turnout 2008 Canadian elections

Voter Turnout in the 2011 Canadian Election

The 2011 election saw a rise in voter turnout compared to the 2008 elections, at 61.1. This rate may rise modestly as the initial figures do not include some special ballot votes.

The 2011 turnout marked an improvement overf the participation rate seen in 2008 (58.8%).

 

Voter Turnout in the 2008 Canadian Election

Voter turnout 2008 Canadian electionsThe voter turnout in 2008 dropped to the lowest percentage of registered voters ever recorded for a national election in Canada. A number of explanations can be offered for the drop of over 5% from the 2006 election. First, there was little to galvanize the electorate in terms of policy issues. Although the crisis on global financial markets erupted during the last two weeks of the campaign, there was little to differentiate the policy responses of the political parties. Secondly, the Thanksgiving long weekend immediately preceded election day on Tuesday Oct 14. Momentum could have been lost for many voters with only a mild attachment to the process. Thirdly, this was the first election with new voter identification rules, and an unknown number of electors were turned away at the polls for not presenting correct ID. Finally, there was a widespread disenchantment among Liberal voters, who turned their back on an uninspiring leader and the contentious Green Shift carbon tax plan.

A review of the differences in votes cast for the 5 major parties in 2006 & 2008 reveals the enormous drop in turnout for Liberal voters, and to a lesser extent Bloc Quebecois and Conservative voters as well. A good many Liberal voters undoubtedly moved to support the Green Party, but the growth in Green support came from all parties, as well as many of the 350,000 new voters added to the list since the 2006 election. Overall, there is little doubt that somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 Liberal supporters did not vote. That number of voters alone accounts for up to a 3 point drop in voter turnout.
 

Votes for Five Major Parties, 2006 & 2008

BQ
CON
GRN
LIB
NDP
Total
Votes 2008 1,379,991 5,209,069 937,613 3,644,185 2,515,288 13,686,146
Votes 2006 1,553,201 5,374,071 664,068 4,479,415 2,589,597 14,660,352
Difference -173,210 -165,002 273,545 -835,230 -74,309 -974,206

Source: Elections Canad, 2008 and 2006

 

Voter Turnout in Historical Perspective

Much has been made of the general decline of voter turnout in recent Canadian elections. The historical record presents a useful perspective on this trend.  It is certainly true that the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots has declined- - especially since 1993.  However, it is important to note the number of fluctuations over the years of the numbers and percentage of registered voters as a percentage of the whole Canadian population (as measured at the census prior to the election). When one computes the percentage of votes cast as a percentage of the whole population, then the decline is not nearly so dramatic.  Indeed, the 45% level registered in the 2000 and 2006 elections is well within the range of 40-50% of Canada's total population seen since 1935. Even the most recent election in 2008 remains within that historical range.

The reality of citizen participation is, however, more complex that those raw numbers suggest.  The changes in age cohort shares of the population have had an effect over the years. For example, the portion of Canadians under 15 years of age has dropped from 32.5% in 1941 to 17.6% in 2006; this figure is calculated from Census data available at Stats Canada. With this change in demographics in mind, one actually should have seen an increase in the percentage of Canada's total population who vote in an election as the Canadian population aged.

Unfortunately, there are some fundamental problems when one tries to compare voter turnout over long periods of time. Because "turnout" is simply the percentage of the people on a list of eligible voters who actually vote, the reliability of that measure depends entirely on the accuracy of the list of eligible voters. In most of the second half of the 20th century federal election lists were compiled by door-to-door visits. Many people were not included on the lists who would otherwise have been entitled to vote. People who had no interest in voting could simply refuse to answer questions when the enumeration officials visited a neighbourhood.

As a result there has never been a completely accurate registration of all eligible voters. Various methods of compiling voter lists may have left from 5 to 15% of possible voters off the official lists. For example, Quebec's list of electors grew by over 13% in the two door-to-door enumerations undertaken for the 1994 and 1998 elections (see: Monique Michaud, Permanent List of Electors: The Quebec Experience). Thus, the official turnout figures for those two provincial elections cannot be directly compared.

The establishment of a permanent National Register of Voters for federal elections has not been entirely reliable either. For example, the official voter turnout figure in 2000 is 61.2%, but Elections Canada later realized that this was based on a voters' list that was artificially inflated by almost a million duplicate names. The actual turnout figure is now estimated to be about 64.1%. See the CBC News article about this updated information. Also, it is difficult to ascertain reliably how many non-voters are included in the electoral list, simply by checking the right box on their income tax form or by getting a driver's license, who are not legally qualified to vote.

Given the vagaries of door-to-door-enumeration and other errors that are almost inevitable in a permanent register of voters, one should not place too much emphasis on precise differences in turnout for particular elections. Nevertheless, there does indeed appear to have been a drop, over the last 15 years or so, in the number of eligible voters who actually end up casting ballots.

Various studies have delved into what may lie behind a drop in voter participation. But even academic surveys of non-voters have their own fundamental problems as the less engaged in the political process individuals are, the less likely they are to participate in surveys about why they did not vote. But we can tell from an historical review of voters lists that far fewer people under the age of 25 are voting than did 3 or 4 decades ago. Some researchers have argued, as a result, that youth should be targeted by various civic campaigns to engage them more fully in elections. Others have argued that non-voting is not simply a function of the youngest cohort of voters. Henry Milner, for example, believes that survey evidence points to a lack of political knowledge as the fundamental factor behind non-voting across all age groups. As far as our youth are concerned, schools may be failing to prepare them properly for citizenship.

Other comparative research has suggested that countries with much more door-to-door canvassing have higher rates of voter turnout. Canadian campaigns have come to rely less and less on repeated doorstep contact in favour of central advertising campaigns and mass mailings, and this approach may result in a less directly personal involvement among voters.

Other more practical issues may have a role as well. In old-style elections up until the late twentieth century, election day 'treating' was common place in many areas of the country. Folding money, a mickey of rum, or a box of chocolates were widely dished out to voters on election day. In short, modern elections may just not be as much fun!

Compulsory voting is sometimes proposed as a solution to falling turnout. A number of other countries, such as Australia & Brazil, have cumplosry voting. An Ekos poll conducted in September 2009 found that 49% of Canadians would support this change while 36% are opposed.

Further Reading

For some further in-depth analysis of turnout issues see:

 

Historical voter turnout in Canada

 

Date of Election or
Referendum
Previous Census or
Population Estimate
Number of
Registered Voters
Electors as %
of Population
Total Votes Voter Turnout as %
Registered Voters
Votes Cast as %
of Population
7 August &  20 Sept 1867 3,230,000 361,028 11.2 268,387 73.1 8.3
20 July  &  12 October 1872 3,689,000 426,974 11.6 318,329 70.3 8.6
22 January 1874 3,689,000 432,410 11.7 324,006 69.6 8.8
17 September 1878 3,689,000 715,279 19.4 534,029 69.1 14.5
20 June 1882 4,325,000 663,873 15.3 508,496 70.3 11.8
22 February 1887 4,325,000 948,222 21.9 724,517 70.1 16.8
5 March 1891 4,833,000 1,113,140 23.0 778,495 64.4 16.1
23 June 1896 4,833,000 1,358,328 28.1 912,992 62.9 18.9
7  November 1900 4,833,000 1,167,402 24.2 958,497 77.4 19.8
3  November 1904 5,371,000 1,385,440 25.8 1,036,878 71.6 19.3
26 October 1908 5,371,000 1,463,591 27.2 1,180,820 70.3 22.0
21 September 1911 7,204,527 1,820,742 25.3 1,314,953 70.2 18.3
17 December 1917 7,591,971 2,093,799 27.6 1,892,741 75.0 24.9
6 December 1921 8,760,211 4,435,310 50.6 3,139,306 67.7 35.8
29 October 1925 8,776,352 4,608,636 52.5 3,168,412 66.4 36.1
14 September 1926 8,887,952 4,665,381 52.5 3,273,062 67.7 36.8
28 July 1930 8,887,952 5,153,971 58.0 3,922,481 73.5 44.1
14 October 1935 10,367,063 5,918,207 57.1 4,452,675 74.2 43.0
26 March 1940 10,429,169 6,588,888 63.2 4,672,531 69.9 44.8
27 April 1942 11,494,627 6,502,234 56.6 4,638,847 71.3 40.4
11 June 1945 11,494,627 6,952,445 60.5 5,305,193 75.3 46.2
27 June 1949 11,823,649 7,893,629 66.8 5,903,572 73.8 49.9
10 August 1953 14,003,704 8,401,691 60.0 5,701,963 67.5 40.7
10 June 1957 16,073,970 8,902,125 55.4 6,680,690 74.1 41.6
31 March 1958 16,073,970 9,131,200 56.8 7,357,139 79.4 45.8
18 June 1962 18,238,247 9,700,325 53.2 7,772,656 79.0 42.6
8 April 1963 18,238,247 9,910,757 54.3 7,958,636 79.2 43.6
8  November 1965 18,238,247 10,274,904 56.3 7,796,728 74.8 42.7
25 June 1968 20,014,880 10,860,888 54.3 8,217,916 75.7 41.1
30 October 1972 21,568,311 13,000,778 60.3 9,974,661 76.7 46.2
8 July 1974 21,568,311 13,620,353 63.1 9,671,002 71.0 44.8
22 May 1979 22,992,604 15,233,653 66.3 11,541,000 75.7 50.2
18 February 1980 22,992,604 15,890,416 69.1 11,015,514 69.3 47.9
4 September 1984 24,343,181 16,774,941 68.9 12,638,424 75.3 51.9
21  November 1988 25,309,331 17,639,001 69.7 13,281,191 75.3 52.5
25 October 1993 27,296,859 19,906,796 72.9 13,863,135 70.9* 50.8
2 June 1997 27,296,859 19,663,478 72.0 13,174,698 67.0 48.3
27  November 2000 28,846,761 21,243,473 73.6 12,997,185 64.1** 45.1
28 June 2004 30,007,094 22,466,621 74.9 13,564,702 60.9 45.2
26 January 2006 31,612,897 23,054,615 72.9 14,908,703 64.7 47.2
14 October 2008 32,976,026 23,677,639 71.8 13,929,093 58.8 42.0
2 May 2011 34,278,400 24,257,592 70.8
14,823,408
61.1 43.2
 

Source: Elections Canada, Voter Turnout. 1867-2008; voter turnout 2011, Elections Canada; population estimate for Jan 1, 2011, Statistics Canada.

Notes:
* While the oficial turnout figure in 1993 is 69.6%, Elections Canada later realized that their official list of registered voters was skewed by an outdated voters list in Quebec. They calculated that the actual turnout was 70.9%. See note 4 at the end of this page from Elections Canada. Be aware that the number listed in the registered voters column for 1993 is the inaccurate "official" number.
** The official voter turnout figure in 2000 is 61.2%, but Elections Canada later realized that this was based on a voters' list that was artificially inflated by almost a million duplicate names. The actual turnout figure is now estimated to be about 64.1%.  See the CBC News article about this updated information and also note 5 at the end of this page from Elections Canada.

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I welcome any feedback and suggestions for fresh material to add to this site -

Andrew Heard
Political Science Department  --  Simon Fraser university