Elections are very important. A key question in any democracy is: Who gets to vote? A related question: Among eligible voters, who actually turns out to cast their ballot?
These are not just important for political party activists (who want to get the most number of votes for their candidates). There is a great deal of research that suggests that the decisions in the 19th and 20th centuries in Canada and throughout much of the world to extend the vote from the land-owning elite to most citizens has had a profound impact on the priorities of governments. Government investments in social and physical infrastructure (everything from schools to health care to roads and public transit) have increased as the base of eligible voters has increased.
Which brings us to the Ontario election of October 10, 2007: Ontario voters will not only be asked to vote for their Member of Provincial Parliament (same as always), but they will also be asked to vote on whether to change from the current first-past-the-post to a mixed-member proportional system (for details, log onto the Referendum Ontario web site of Elections Ontario ).
The pros and cons of this referendum are important. But before taking on these questions, consider a couple of critical trends in Ontario elections over the past decade (based on numbers from Elections Ontario and Statistics Canada).
Over the past 10 general elections in Ontario (from 1971 to 2003), the province’s population has increased 160% from 7.7 million to 12.1 million; and the number of eligible voters has also increased by 176% from 4.5 million to 8 million.
So far so good: A growing population and a growing list of eligible voters.
Problem #1: Ontario’s population growth in the past three decades was mainly due to immigration. Back in 1991, more than 90% of Ontarians aged 18 or over were eligible to vote. By 2003, that number had slipped to less than 85%. In real numbers, about half a million Ontario residents weren’t able to vote in the 1991 election, and that grew to almost 1.5 million by 2003.
Most immigrants arrive in Canada poorer than resident Canadians, and they stay poorer for longer, according to research. Which raises a critical question: Are the needs of immigrants – who cannot vote – being set aside as politicians compete for the ballots of those who can vote?
Problem #2: The turnout of eligible voters has been dropping rapidly – falling from more than 73% in 1971 to less than 57% in 2003. That adds up to 3.5 million eligible voters who didn’t mark their ballot.
Numerous research reports suggest that poor people tend to vote in lower numbers than wealthier people. If that holds true for Ontario, then the dropping turnout is a clear warning that poverty and other issues of most interest to lower-income Ontarians may not get full attention by vote-seeking politicians.
No definitive answers – but these important questions raise concerns about whether our political institutions are able to engage politicians and voters in the critical concerns of all Ontarians.