Most people agree that civic engagement is one important measure of a healthy community. And one key indicator is participation in democratic processes, including federal elections. On that score, a quick review of the numbers from Tuesday’s general election paint a dismal picture and point to a discouraged electorate; as well an electoral structure that yields surprising, and unexpected, results.
Overall, a total of 13,832,972 voters cast their ballots in the 2008 election. That’s down by more than a million people from the 14,908,703 voters in the last general election in 2006 (all voting numbers are from Elections Canada).
Canada’s population grew over the past two years, and the number of eligible voters increased, but slightly more than 40% of voters decided not to turn up at their local polling station. The voter turnout in Tuesday’s election was an all-time low of 59.1% – the worst in the history of Canada.
It will take some time to parse the reasons for the profound disengagement from electoral politics in the 2008 federal election. However, political scientists believe that electoral structures have an influence on participation in elections. Canada is one of the few countries in the world (along with the U.S.) that still uses an electoral system that counts votes in local jurisdictions instead of the popular vote.
Canada’s voting system can produce some electoral surprises – such as majority governments elected with a minority of votes. This also happens in the United States, most famously in the year 2000, when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore earned more votes (51,003,926 votes or 48.38% of the total ballots cast) than Republican candidate George W. Bush (50,460,110 votes or 47.87% of ballots cast), yet the U.S. electoral system handed the presidency to Bush.
Most people believe that in a democracy like Canada’s, the number of seats that a political party gets in Parliament depends on the number of votes that they earn. But our “first-past-the-post” electoral system doesn’t reward parties with a number of MPs proportional to their popular vote at the national level.
When the electoral structure doesn’t fully count votes, or delivers skewed results, political scientists worry that voters get discouraged and disengaged. In the U.S., voter turnout in presidential elections has been below 60% for the past four decades. Voter participation rates are lower in the U.S. than Canada, but the 2008 federal election is part of a steady downward trend among Canadian voters over the past two decades.
Voting in democratic elections is seen as a basic responsibility of citizenship, but the drooping voter turnout in Canada and the U.S. is one important measure of declining civic participation, and that’s simply unhealthy.
Dig into Tuesday’s election numbers a bit, and here’s what you find:
CONSERVATIVES: In 2008, the Conservatives earned fewer votes than the last election, but received more seats in Parliament. On Tuesday, the Conservatives received 5,205,334 votes – that’s 168,737 votes less than the 5,374,071 they received in 2006. The Tories got fewer votes, but on Tuesday, they received 143 seats, up 19 from the number of MPs elected in 2006. In 2008, the Conservatives received 37.6% of the national vote, but won 46.4% of the seats in Parliament.
NEW DEMOCRATS: On Tuesday, the NDP received 2,517,075 votes – almost exactly the same number as in 2006. But they jumped from 29 to 37 seats in Parliament from the last election. While there are more New Democrats in Parliament, the overall number is still short of the proportional share that they should have received based on the popular vote. In 2008, New Democrats won 18.2% of the votes, but only received 12% of the seats.
LIBERALS: The Liberal vote count was way down in 2008 from 2006. On Tuesday, the Grits earned 3,629,990 votes – down by almost 850,000 votes from the 4,479,415 they received in 2006. The Liberal seat count of 76 in 2008 (down from 103 in the last election) was pretty close, in percentage terms, to the proportion of the vote that they received. They got 26.2% of the vote in 2008, and received 24.7% of the seats in Parliament.
GREENS: The Greens earned 940,747 votes in 2008, up from 664,068 in 2006. They didn’t get any seats in 2006, and didn’t get any seats in 2008, even though they received 6.8% of the vote.
BLOC QUEBECOIS: The Bloc only runs candidates in one province (Quebec), so the national numbers are somewhat skewed. In 2008, the Bloc earned 1,379,565 votes, but received 50 seats in Parliament. Their vote count was down from the 1,553,201 they received in 2006 and they won one fewer seat in 2008 from two years ago. The Bloc received 10% of the national popular vote, but received 16.2% of the seats in Parliament.
There are plenty of other ways to look at the election numbers, and they also produce some remarkable results. Here are just two (there are plenty of other anomalies):
ALBERTA: in Alberta, the electoral system rewarded the Tories. They received less than two-thirds of the vote (64.6%), but received almost all the seats (96.4%). New Democrats received a significant 12.7% of the votes (which put them in second place in terms of party standings in the province that many consider one of Canada’s most conservative) but only received one seat (3.6% of the total number of MPs).
GREATER TORONTO: In Toronto, the electoral system favoured the Liberals. They earned less than half the popular vote (43.6%), but received three-quarters of the seats in Parliament (76.2%). The Conservatives earned one out of every three votes in Toronto (33.5%), but received less than one-in-five of the Parliamentary seats (19.1%). New Democrats attracted 15.1% of the votes, but only received 4.8% of the seats.