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December 20, 2010

Voter Turnout

Politicians blame their rivals for not being able to motivate voter turnout, while they really hope that their supporters will vote and their opponent's will stay home.

Compare the 2009 and 2005 BC election results. You wouldn't know it from recent coverage, but the NDP did better than either the BC Liberals or Greens in holding their vote. Relative to 2005, BC had 6.2% more eligible voters, 5.3% more registered voters, but 6.9% FEWER actual voters. Like the overall vote, the Liberals received 6.9% fewer votes, but the NDP vote dropped by only 5.5% while the Green vote dropped by a surprising 16.8%. Nevertheless, lower voter turnout was one of the reasons used to criticize NDP leader Carole James. Low voter turnout is a worldwide problem.

Leadership hopeful, former Attorney General and Liberal House leader, Mike de Jong made a media grabbing proposal to let 16 year-olds vote. BC's current age requirement is at least age 18 on voting day, the common worldwide standard. The minimum age is 17 in East Timor, Indonesia, North Korea, the Seychelles and Sudan, and 16 in Austria, Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

The issue should not be age of suffrage, but how to increase voter turnout for those currently eligible to vote. In the 2008 federal election Newfoundland and Labrador saw a record low voter turnout of just 48.1%, compared to 83 per cent voter turnout in their 1997 provincial election, falling to 62 per cent in the provincial election in 2007.

BC saw a voter turnout of 50.99% in the May 2009 provincial election.

Low voter turnout shouldn't be used as a club in either partisan or internal-party politics. All parties should cooperate on how to make democracy meet ideals, but that is unlikely to happen despite all the high minded rhetoric you will hear during the Liberal and NDP leadership races.

Mike de Jong also suggested something like a lotto win of no income taxes to encourage people to vote. The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) publishes a website with global voter turnout statistics and resources; in a 2006 speech, IDEA's Head of Electoral Processes, Andrew Ellis, provided evidence that de Jong's idea of an election lottery can increase voter turnout. Ellis reported that in an election in Evenes, northern Norway, a prize of an airfare to the Mediterranean increased voter turnout by about 10%. He didn't say whether it made the election more of a lottery by encouraging uninformed voters to cast random ballots.

Like many pundits, a Conference Board of Canada report argued that higher voter participation requires different politics, but it went on to say: "Like Canada, most of the peer countries have also experienced a decline in voter turnout." If politicians are the problem, its not unique to Canada, so what is stopping reformers, anywhere in the world, from seizing the initiative and replacing old-style politicians? North American election reformers argue that politicians should pay more attention to "the people", yet in Switzerland, arguably the jurisdiction with the most referendums, voter turnout has been under 50% since 1980.

All political parties have an incentive to at least increase the turnout of their supporters. Appearing on CKNW on Sunday afternoon (Dec 19th), de Jong hinted that the fear of what 16 year-old voters might do could motivate adults to get out and vote. His jest is close to the truth. The fear of what others might do should motivate everyone to vote, but it doesn't. Beware because some of us will try to get like minded friends to vote while those of opposite persuasions sit on the couch. That is the way politics works; the losers have no right to cry.