Four in 10 eligible Canadian voters failed to cast ballots in the Oct 14 general election leading some to complain that the very health of our democratic system may be in peril.
A record low of 59.1 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the election. Voter turnout has declined gradually in Canada over the last 30 years but the drop below 60 percent is a psychological low-water mark.
Some believe the onslaught of negative advertising unleashed by all parties during the campaign combined with daily polls that seemed to indicate the election results were a foregone conclusion depressed voter turnout. Others say the election discourse lacked a clear, polarizing issue that would have drawn people to the polls.
There was also a virtually complete absence of gay and lesbian issues in the policy platforms of the main political parties.
“Part of it may be that the gay and lesbian groups have not been effective as lobby organizations,” says Bruce Hicks, a political scientist at the Université de Montréal. “If you look at Egale back in 1993, they got [then prime minister Jean] Chrétien to commit to hate crimes legislation, human rights legislation and other items for the community. I don’t see Egale doing that currently and part of that may be that there isn’t a clearly identified wish list like there was in 1993. Now it’s a little harder to identify legislation that’s appealing to the whole community,” says Hicks.
There was a sharp decline in voter turnout in three of the four ridings with conspicuously large gay and lesbian communities: Toronto Centre, Vancouver Centre and Laurier-Sainte Marie (Montreal). Incumbent MPs prevailed in all three: Bob Rae, Hedy Fry and Gilles Duceppe respectively.
The fourth conspicuously large gay riding is Ottawa Centre which typically enjoys a stronger than average voter turnout. There 71.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, reelecting Paul Dewar.
In Toronto Centre almost 8,000 fewer votes were cast than in 2006. While most of the parties competing in the riding received a similar number of votes as they did two years ago, the NDP vote appears to have collapsed by 8,000 votes. It’s the party’s worst showing in Toronto Centre since 1993.
El-Farouk Khaki, who carried the NDP banner in the riding says that people there appeared dis-interested in the election.
“I heard of lot of people say to me that people didn’t bother to vote because people thought it was a foregone conclusion,” says Khaki, noting that a polling station at 85 Bleeker St had only a 40 percent turnout.
But Peter Bochove, owner of Spa Excess, says he didn’t see an NDP presence in the riding, suggesting the party may have conceded the riding to a star Liberal candidate.
“I think the NDP considered the riding unwinnable,” says Bochove.
“This was our second campaign in a year,” says Khaki. “We were strapped for resources. I didn’t get to do maybe as much as I would have wanted to.”
In Vancouver Centre the decline in the number of voters was a more modest 700 compared to 2006, perhaps owing to the highly competitive four-way race that evolved there. Elections Canada reports almost 4,000 fewer registered voters in the riding compared to the 2000 election, while the riding’s population has grown by 8,000 people in that time, suggesting that many new residents in the riding were not added to the voter list, while at the same time voters who left the riding or died were not replaced on the list. The declining number of registered voters per capita is a recurring theme in ridings across the country.
Elections Canada stopped sending enumerators door-to-door in the 1990s. It relies today instead on individuals to voluntarily add their names to the voters list when they fill out their income tax forms. Hicks says this method systematically disenfranchises people who move frequently, especially young people, renters and new immigrants.
The old system of door-to-door enumeration also encouraged people to show up at the polls.
“The very act of going door-to-door had a mobilizing effect,” says Hicks. “It adds to your likelihood of going out to vote.”
Hicks also suggests that parts of the gay community may simply be comfortable with its incumbent local representatives.
“Hedy’s success in Vancouver is very closely tied to her success as a person and her ability to get reelected in a hotly contested race,” says Hicks. “Part of that was her ability to be identified with the gay community in her riding. Rae marches in Pride parades and builds up that relationship. With Fry, Rae and Duceppe, you get people who are standing up for gay and lesbian people.”
But the decline of voter participation is an issue that goes beyond simple satisfaction with government, says Hicks.
“At what point does this actually undermine the credibility of our democracy?” he asks.
For the gay community the most important thing is to identify the issues that will win its votes, Hicks says.
“I’m not sure at the national level the gay community has its act together,” he says. “In the post-marriage era they’re still struggling with what items on the agenda they want to advance. You can only mobilize people if you have an issue. If you don’t have a wish list that’s exciting your population, they won’t get out to vote and politicians won’t pay attention.”