This is a holiday, you say. I should be relaxing with family, or cooking, or having a nap.
Not today. Today, I have been poking around on social media looking for gossip on the election. And I got to thinking about voter turnout.
We have a lot of moral panic about voter turnout. Turnout is dropping, we hear every year. People are increasingly disengaged, and those who lead our country are chosen by a smaller and smaller number of its people.
But, like any political scientists on a holiday, I got to thinking. So I looked up the historical data from Elections Canada, which comes in a handy chart.
If you map voter turnout based on this information, you get something that looks roughly like this:
That drop in recent years does look concerning. (Don’t worry about that plunge in 1898; Elections Canada says it was a referendum of some sort. There’s probably an interesting story there.)
But I got to wondering about how much of our population might be on the list of electors. And if you divide the number of people on the list by the population, you get this:
There are some pretty startling increases over time on that graph. I’m guessing the jump in the late teens and early ’20s is the result of the fact that women got the vote around that time. But we’ve got more and more of our population on the list of electors from about the 1960s.
So what does that mean for turnout numbers? Well, it seems that turnout numbers are based on a denominator of how many people are on the list of electors. So if we want to roughly control for changes to the percentage of people on the voter’s list, we can compare the population to the number of ballots cast. That looks like this:
Based on this graph, there doesn’t seem to be much of a decline at all. From about 1940 onward, between about 40% and 51% of the population has voted. Since the early ’70s, it’s been 44% to 51%. Our last three elections have been 50%, 44%, and 47%, respectively.
Of course, I’m entirely glossing over some pretty significant demographic changes here. One of them, I’d think, would be big changes in and since the post-war period around what percentage of the population was old enough to vote. Those could have a big effect. But I do find these numbers to be particularly curious.
Now, I’ve spent about 5 minutes on this, and my expertise isn’t in quantitative political science. I’m hoping that some of you political science folks out there have actually done more work on this, or at least know of people who have. I’d certainly appreciate any links to relevant works you could share in the comments section. (And let me know if you see any errors in the graphs or calculations I’ve got above. I slapped them together pretty quickly.)
In the mean time, I’m left wondering: why are we constantly hearing about the moral decay of declining turnout, when as many of us are voting as have in the last several decades? It seems like our actual level of participation may be masked by how good we’ve gotten at getting people signed up to vote.
If the percent of the population voting doesn’t have a clear downward trend over the last few decades, how do our concerns about or perceptions of turnout change? Could we be asking better questions about changes in democratic engagement that go beyond the ballot box itself?
|Date of election/referendum||Population||Number of electors on list||Total ballots cast||Voter turnout||Percent on voters list||Ballots by population|
|7 August – 20 September 1867Footnote 1||3,230,000||361,028||268,387||73.1||11.2%||8.3%|
|20 July – 12 October 1872||3,689,000||426,974||318,329||70.3||11.6%||8.6%|
|22 January 1874||3,689,000||432,410||324,006||69.6||11.7%||8.8%|
|17 September 1878||3,689,000||715,279||534,029||69.1||19.4%||14.5%|
|20 June 1882||4,325,000||663,873||508,496||70.3||15.3%||11.8%|
|22 February 1887||4,325,000||948,222||724,517||70.1||21.9%||16.8%|
|5 March 1891||4,833,000||1,113,140||778,495||64.4||23.0%||16.1%|
|23 June 1896||4,833,000||1,358,328||912,992||62.9||28.1%||18.9%|
|29 September 1898Footnote 2||4,833,000||1,236,419||551,405||44.6||25.6%||11.4%|
|27 April 1942Footnote 2||11,494,627||6,502,234||4,638,847||71.3||56.6%||40.4%|
|26 October 1992Footnote 2 Footnote 3||20,400,896||13,725,966||9,855,978||71.8||67.3%||48.3%|
|Elections Canada Numbers||My additions|