Opinion | Do you want to increase the low voter turnout? Sorry Ontario, there is no miracle cure

There is still time for a post-election autopsy of our voting system.

The dismal and abysmal voter turnout of 43.5 percent on June 2 was historic and embarrassingly low for a provincial election. But the cure is not so simple.

For all the gloom, this should be a time for careful reflection, not thoughtful rhetoric about remedies that may ultimately lack democratic support.

In the wake of the June result, critics of the current system jumped with questionable conclusions about the causes and remedies for low turnout in Ontario elections. They claimed that low turnout diminished the democratic legitimacy of Prime Minister Doug Ford’s victory, because only a fraction of the eligible electorate supported him and many were rejected, an argument that, by the way, applies equally to opposition parties.

For proponents of proportional representation, it also proved an irresistible opportunity to make unproven claims that their alternative voting method could save us so much despair. If only Ontarians moved to a higher form of democracy, the theory goes, they would be more democratically engaged.

Embedded in this unexamined premise is an unsupported panacea: that proportional representation is the people’s choice because it somehow reflects people’s preferences.

But what if it’s not necessarily true? What if the proposed democratic reform of proportional representation lacks democratic roots?

When it was last tried in the 2007 provincial referendum, it failed: only 36.8 percent of voters backed a hybrid version called “mixed membership,” in which the results are supplemented with political party lists to better reflect the provincial vote, with 63.2 percent. percent preferring to stick to the status quo.

All these years later, proportional representation still lags behind in popularity: Mainstreet Research found that it lost out to a “ranked-choice voting system,” which ranked higher as Ontarians’ preferred choice.

In fact, 35.6 percent want the right to rank their options on a ballot. Under this system, if your preferred candidate is eliminated, your vote is not wasted: your second (and third) choice on the ballot is automatically reassigned, in an instant electronic runoff, until the winner gets at least 50 percent of the vote. the votes. the entire cast.

Proportional representation came in second place, supported by 34.3 percent of those surveyed by Mainstreet. Yes, that’s a close second, well within the survey’s assumed margin of error (3.1 percent 19 of 20 times, with a representative sample of 999 Ontarians surveyed).

But the current electoral system came in a close third, with 30.1 percent preferring the status quo known as “first to pass.” That’s almost a three-way statistical tie, suggesting the public is deeply divided on any quick fix.

Interestingly, heresy to true believers in proportional representation, younger voters prefer the ranked voting option by an even larger margin: 43.2 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 prefer the runoff. electronically, versus 39 percent who favor proportional representation.

Don’t tell that to the small group of Canadians who have found religion in proportional representation, and for whom electoral reform is equal to reform. For them, proportional representation is the answer to apathy, the purest form of emancipation, the most Solomonic system of vote distribution in every way.

While I have always been sympathetic, proportional representation is still a hard sell. Most people are unconvinced about the alternatives, too concerned with more pressing issues, or simply don’t follow politics closely enough to care.

That’s why the qualifying ballot is an easier, fairer and more feasible modification of our voting system, short of rebuilding our entire democratic edifice. It allows people to express their opinion in an instant electronic second round, in the same way that political parties elect their leaders in a second or third ballot until someone gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

All that said, there is little evidence that the current electoral system is the disincentive critics seem to think it is. It turns out that it is the politicians and their parties that drive people away.

When asked why they didn’t vote, 45.8 percent told Mainstreet they didn’t think the candidates were “significantly different.” Another 15.6 percent said the campaign lacked “any meaning.” And another 20.4 percent didn’t think their vote “matter.”

That adds up to eight out of 10 eligible voters who were too bummed out to bother showing up. Another 8.8 percent “forgot to vote” and another 9.3 percent “didn’t have time.”

Say what you will about the imperfections of our electoral system, those poll numbers speak volumes about the failures of our politics and politicians, of all parties, to motivate voters. But let’s not let the people of Ontario get off the hook so quickly.

When asked for their reaction to the record low voter turnout of 43.5 percent, 72.6 percent of those surveyed described it as “too low.” Which means that many of those who did not vote were not happy that so many did not vote.

That is democracy, in which the people are always right, even when they are wrong not to vote.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist who focuses on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn


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