It’s hard not to be disappointed by the dismal turnout in this month’s election.
Democratic engagement reached its lowest point in Ontario on June 2.
Passivity is the problem: between the elected, the voters and yes, the Ontario elections.
Consider the severity of the drop: 43.5 percent of Ontario’s 10.7 million eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot, the lowest level ever recorded in the province’s history.
What does that say about the government? Or the governed?
Are Voters Just Tuned Out? Or dissatisfied with the options?
It is easy to misunderstand the causes and very tempting to overdo the remedies. That does not mean that nothing can be done.
First, full disclosure: After a decade as a foreign correspondent, covering stories around the world of people willing to die for democracy, I returned home only to be stunned by the seeming indifference of so many Canadians to the election.
Four years ago, we brought together the leaders of Ontario’s four major parties for the inaugural Democracy Forum at TMU (Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson, where I am a visiting intern). We asked them how they “would get out to vote” (GOTV), but also how to get out. everybody voters.
Subsequently, voter turnout jumped from just 51% in 2014 to an impressive 56.7% in the 2018 election, a gratifying jump of almost six percentage points. Was it something the leaders did or revealed at our event?
Of course not. In fact, voters were simply motivated by a supposed “change election” so that they could “vote for the bums” after 15 years of Liberal rule.
No, they were not deterred by a flawed first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system in 2018. Nor were they discouraged by flawed candidates (Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives were woefully unprepared).
Just four years later, in 2022, voter turnout fell by 13.2 percentage points (from 56.7 to 43.5 percent).
Now, proportional representation advocates say people were suddenly so frustrated by flaws in our existing FPTP system that they boycotted the polls in 2022. To increase turnout, they argue, a public relations system needs to be put in place, no matter what. that Ontario voters roundly rejected electoral reform in a Democratic referendum in 2007.
No one denies the disparities between the popular vote across the province and the number of seats won by each party: Ford’s Conservatives won an overwhelming 40.3 percent of all votes cast, yielding a large majority of 83 seats ( equal to two disproportionate thirds). of the 124 seats in the legislature).
Interestingly, the pro-PR New Democrats got their fair share: 31 seats, equal to precisely a quarter of the entire legislature, reflecting their 23.7 percent popular vote share. That was enough to get Official Opposition status.
The Liberals won just eight seats, or six percent of the total legislature, despite winning slightly more votes than the NDP on 23.85 percent. The Greens, with six percent of the vote, won just one seat, or less than one percent of the total.
Such a lopsided result is nothing to celebrate, but it is an exaggeration to suggest that this has much to do with turnout. Past disparities in PFTP results did not prevent voters from voting in previous elections, so where is the causality?
There may be good reasons for some form of proportional representation in Ontario to better reflect voter preferences, but increasing turnout is the least compelling. Many other PR countries tend towards higher voter turnout, but comparing political cultures is child’s play with so many other variables (the highest turnout is in Australia, which opted for compulsory voting and qualifying voting).
More specifically, PR is a dead end in Ontario for the foreseeable future.
Voters resoundingly defeated a “mixed member proportional” system when they were last asked 14 years ago, and it is too early to redo it. In that context, the best bet for electoral reform is to let another province lead the way, rather than re-hold a referendum here every few years.
All that said, at our last post-election Democracy Forum at TMU, I asked campaign strategists from all four major parties if they thought proportional representation would have a major impact on voter turnout. the response from NDP campaign manager Michael Balaguswhose party has long supported PR, was revealing.
“I’ve come across very, very few people who told me that’s why they didn’t vote, because they felt their vote wouldn’t count (with the FPTP),” Balagus told me. It’s not like people are saying, “If I had proportional representation, I would have (voted).”
What matters most is the length of the vote. Balagus, who has also witnessed democracy abroad (he worked for the National Democratic Institute in Europe), said Elections Ontario, the nonpartisan agency overseeing the process, is stuck in time because it hasn’t tried harder to extend voting beyond a single day. : “I think there are real systemic problems with the Ontario elections. They should leave Canada for a weekend and go see how elections are held around the world; we and the US should be the last people on earth to have a one-day election.”
Ideally, the vote would be spread over two days, including a weekend, perhaps Sunday and Monday, he suggested.
We can continue to circle around electoral reform, which lacked a democratic consensus the last time we checked in a referendum. Or we can extend from election “day” to the election “days” — opting for the plural in a pluralist democracy.
Balagus is right. It’s an elegant solution, easy to sell and hard to disagree with in a democracy.
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