The Economics of Elections: Low Voter Turnout and Rising Costs

By Tina Kremmidas

The 41st Ontario general election will be held on June 12, 2014. As campaign ads hit the airwaves, politicians of all stripes need to think about how many Ontarians will actually turn out to vote.

Only 48.2 per cent of eligible voters in Ontario cast a ballot in the last provincial election (October 6, 2011), a historic low. In the October 10, 2007 election, 52.1 per cent of eligible voters participated. Voter turnout in the province has declined significantly since the 1970s when the average turnout was around 70 per cent.

The situation is not unique to Ontario — turnout has been low in many provinces — and has declined at the federal level. In the last federal election (May 2, 2011), 58.5 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots compared to an average of 75 per cent in the 1945-1988 period.

Elections Canada noted that this downward trend “has potentially serious implications for Canadian democracy — for the extent of a democratic mandate that governments might claim, for the kinds of candidates who are elected and even for the types of issues that are discussed.”

While many voters stay home, the cost of elections is rising. Elections Ontario estimates that the province’s June 12, 2014 general election will cost taxpayers approximately $90 million. The 2011 Ontario election cost $79 million. The March 2011 federal election cost Canadian taxpayers $291.0 million. This was slightly higher than the cost of the 2008 and 2006 elections ($286.2 million and $279.7 million, respectively).

Voter Turnout Varies

In Australia, Belgium and Singapore, over 90 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. South American countries also have relatively high voter participation rates, most notably Brazil (81.9 per cent in 2010), Argentina (77.2 per cent in 2013) and Peru (83.7 per cent in 2011). Voter turnout varies considerably in Europe. In France, 55.4 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in parliamentary elections in 2012. In Greece, 62.5 per cent did so in 2012, while in Italy 75.2 per cent exercised their franchise in 2013. In the U.S. voter turnout dipped to 57.5 per cent in the 2012 presidential election.

One of the strongest factors accounting for differences in voter turnout is compulsory voting. Twenty-eight countries have some form of compulsory voting, including Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Cyprus, Singapore, and Turkey. Some impose sanctions against non-voters ranging from fines, possible imprisonment or disenfranchisement.

In Australia, under federal electoral law, it is compulsory for all eligible Australian citizens to enroll and vote in federal elections. The Australian Electoral Commission will send a letter to all apparent non-voters requesting that they either provide a reason for failing to vote, or pay a $20 penalty. If, the apparent non-voter fails to provide a valid and sufficient reason, or declines to pay the fine, the matter may be referred to a court. If the person is found guilty, he or she may be fined up to $170 plus court costs and have a criminal conviction. As a result, Australia boasts one of the highest civic participation rates in the world. Moreover, the system enjoys strong popular support.

Some studies have found that countries with proportional representation (PR) have higher voter turnout. Under PR, seats in legislative bodies are distributed in proportion to the votes received. For example, if a party gets 40 per cent of the vote, it gets 40 per cent of the legislative seats. Since every vote will help a party win more seats, there is a greater incentive for voters to participate and for political parties to mobilize their supporters. Additionally, nations with PR tend to have multiple political parties that afford voters a wide array of choices. There is a greater likelihood that voters will be able to identify with a particular party’s platform.
Canada has a simple plurality, first-past-the-post or winner take-takes-all, voting system. The candidate who gets the largest number of votes in each of the ridings wins the election and a seat in the House of Commons or in the provincial/territorial legislative assembly.

Socio-Economic Factors

People with more education have a higher sense of civic duty. Wealthy people are more likely to vote regardless of their educational background. Older citizens are far more likely to vote than younger individuals. Married people are more likely to vote than single individuals.

Individuals who identify more strongly with a political party are more likely to vote. Those with easier access to a polling station are also more likely to cast a ballot.
Factors such as ethnicity, race and gender, appear to have little impact on voter participation in Western democracies; nor does occupation.

Top Reasons for Not Voting

In 2011, Statistics Canada (at the request of Elections Canada) added questions to the Labour Force Survey to determine the main reasons Canadians did not vote in the May 2, 2011 federal election.

More than one-quarter (27.7 per cent, or roughly 2 million people) of the 7.5 million eligible voters who reported they did not cast a ballot in the 2011 federal election indicated they did not do so because they were “not interested in voting” with some feeling their vote would not have made a difference in the election results. An additional 22.7 per cent indicated they were “too busy”. Another 10.1 per cent said they were out of town, 8.5 per cent did not vote because of an illness or disability while 7.6 per cent did not like the candidates or campaign issues. Roughly 4 per cent indicated they forgot to vote.

Younger non-participants (those 18 to 24 years of age) demonstrated a greater lack of interest (29.9 per cent), or they indicated they were too busy (22.6 per cent). Older individuals (i.e. 65 to 74 years of age) who did not cast a ballot cited health issues (22.3 per cent) or lack of interest (21.3 per cent).
Among non-voters with less than a high school education, 30 per cent said they were not interested in voting. In contrast, 28 per cent of non-voters with a university degree cited being too busy.

Young Voters’ Apathy

In exploring the dynamics of the decline in electoral participation in Canada, one thing is clear. Canada’s youth is not voting at the same rate as their elders, or at the same rate as previous generations when they were the same age.

In the 2011 federal election, 38.8 per cent of eligible voters 18 to 24 years of age cast a ballot, some 20 percentage points below the national average.
In general, young Canadians exhibit lower levels of political knowledge, voter apathy and a declining sense that voting is a civic duty. Perhaps our right as Canadian citizens to vote is a privilege that more and more young people are taking for granted.

The challenge is to get young Canadians interested in politics and elections to arrest the decline in voter turnout levels.

Engaging Canada’s Youth

More needs to be done to motivate and engage young people in the political process.

Between elections, governments could promote the importance of voter/civic engagement through multimedia campaigns as the election period is far too short to persuade young Canadians that voting is a worthwhile endeavor. Politicians could engage young people in meaningful and ongoing dialogue by participating in youth roundtables at high schools and universities, discussing issues that are relevant to young Canadians.

E-voting could be explored. According to the 2000 Canadian Election Study, 64 per cent of non-voter respondents indicated they would have voted if telephone or Internet voting had been available. In a fall 2007 Elections Canada survey, 69 per cent of youth indicated an interest in voting on-line. Resolving security concerns is key.

In schools, greater emphasis could be placed on the importance of voting and civic and political engagement. Election simulation programs (like Student Vote offered by Elections Ontario) allow students the opportunity to engage in realistic voting exercises. Voting Rules! is a civics education program for Grades 5 and 10 teachers in Ontario developed by Elections Ontario in partnership with Elections Canada. The program features dialogue-driven lesson plans, engaging activities, and clear information on democracy, elections and voting in Ontario and Canada.

Finally, a sense of civic duty stems, in large part, from one’s early influences. Parents could discuss political issues and civic engagement more with their children. Parental turnout is a strong predictor of voting in young people.

Economy’s Effect on Election Outcomes

“It’s the economy, stupid!” was a phrase used during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. There is a vast literature suggesting that general economic conditions affect electoral outcomes and that economic perceptions influence individual vote choice.

Some studies have found that the economy’s performance matters more than public policy issues as people tend to reward or punish the incumbent party for economic conditions. Research findings also indicate that short-run economic change matters more than long-term economic levels, and that the trend in the economy’s performance matter more than the absolute level.

It appears that the greater the attachment to a party, the smaller the influence of economic conditions on voter turnout.

In Summary

A growing number of citizens feel that their votes do not matter. Unless we reverse the decline in voter participation, the leaders we elect, and the policy positions adopted, will be determined by a declining percentage of the population.

Important issues like achieving sustainable economic growth, creating well-paying jobs, attaining adequate pensions, having a competitive tax system, confronting escalating health care costs, delivering effective and efficient public services, and achieving a sustainable fiscal balance require bold action and comprehensive plans. All Canadians need to take an interest in how the parties propose to deal with these issues and to make their vote count on election day.  

Tina Kremmidas, Economics Contributor