By Colby Cosh - Friday, October 7, 2011 - 95 Comments
Get ready for the Voter Turnout Nerds: you’ll be hearing from them today. Oh yes. It would not be like them to stay silent after an Ontario election in which fewer than half of technically eligible voters appear to have cast a ballot. The Turnout Nerds don’t care who won or who lost: they care about the mathematical purity of the electoral exercise. They’ll be everywhere you look in the media, ready with their diagnoses and their nostrums and, most of all, their disapproval.
It’s not the people who have let us down, they’ll tell us; it’s the government that has let the people down, fostering apathy (most heinous of all political sins) by failing to implement Brilliant Idea X or Salutary Scheme Y. But at what point do the people, apparently so deaf to the allure of electoral reforms and renovations, stop believing the Turnout Nerd’s comforting assurances of goodwill? Nothing seems to raise the holy quantity of Turnout very effectively. Any momentary rise seems to be followed by a more precipitate plunge. Are the electorate and the Turnout Nerds headed toward a frightful mutual collision with terrible truths about democracy?
Seven provinces, including Ontario, have adopted fixed election dates, partly as a response to the Turnout Problem. When the Harper government introduced fixed dates in 2006—we all remember how well that turned out, don’t we?—this was one of the stated goals: “One objective of setting fixed election dates is maximizing voter turnout.” Dozens of experts and quasi-experts made this argument, and we now have data from enough fixed-date elections to venture a conclusion on this noble experiment:
Prov Elxn Change in Turnout BC May 17 2005 +2.8% PE May 28 2007 +0.5% NL Oct 9 2007 -9.5% ON Oct 10 2007 -4.1% BC May 12 2009 -7.2% NB Sept 27 2010 +4.0% PE Oct 3 2011 -7.4% MB Oct 4 2011 +0.7% ON Oct 6 2011 -5.2%* NL Oct 11 2011 ? SK Nov 7 2011 ? *early estimate
[Points thumb downward, blows raspberry]
As provinces scrambled pell-mell to adopt fixed election dates, a few sociologists and political scientists pointed out that our municipal governments already have them—and that turnouts in Canadian municipal elections, possibly as a consequence, are feeble. Fixed election dates are also a characteristic of American electoral systems, as are pathetic turnouts at every level.
And what else do Canadian municipal elections and U.S. federal and state elections have in common? Huge incumbency advantages. Fixed dates are supposed to relieve a crucial advantage of incumbents in traditional Canadian elections, yet it’s the damnedest thing—if my math is right, incumbents won seven of the nine fixed-date elections in that table, and are extremely likely to be 9-for-11 a month from now. (I wouldn’t recommend establishing any crazy expectations about increased turnout in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, either.)
Did we make a boo-boo? Did our democracy slip on a banana peel? Turnout Nerds sought fixed-date elections in the name of their obsession with voting as a simplistic moral imperative: it is starting to appear not only as if they failed on their own terms, but that their tonic for democracy may have had unanticipated, or at least undisclosed, side-effects. The Nerds’ next crusade will probably be for electronic voting, and if you think citizens are cynical about electoral politics now, wait until the apparatus falls into the hands of the people who gave the world golden hits like PC LOAD LETTER and PAGE_FAULT_IN_NONPAGED_AREA.
It is not that the Turnout Nerds have some vast constituency of voters who share their concern. Voter turnout is the kind of imaginary issue that spurs people to parrot pieties to pollsters, but the turnout itself is a perfect revealed-preference measure of how much people actually care. Aside from a few unfortunates who slip and fall or get hit by buses on their way to the polls, there can be almost no such thing as a person who is really concerned about turnout, but who stays home on Election Day. We all have near-total control over whether we turn out or not. The cost of going to the polls is pretty much zero. So the issue, if there is an issue, must be that a lot of people think that voting isn’t even worth the zero—that they personally accomplish nothing or less than nothing by voting: not even the reinforcement of a useful social norm or the cultivation of a private sense of satisfaction. Some of them are surely right about this.
The true place of the Turnout Nerd in the media ecosystem is to fill space—to give us something to talk and worry and argue about in the absence of authentic information about what stirrings and yearnings lie behind the raw vote totals. But the Nerd, with his worrywart ways focused on one principle of political health, may be having the same destructive effects on our political life as any other fundamentalist or monomaniac. These people are the orthorexics of politics. Ask Kenneth Arrow: the creation of a political system is always a balancing act between virtues, a compromise, a kludge. Greater political “engagement” and “involvement” are vague virtues at best; and more “excitement” is, if you ask me, an indubitable positive vice.
So can we start politely ignoring the Turnout Nerd? Heck, I won’t even insist on the “politely” part.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 3:19 PM - 28 Comments
Rob Nicholson, Nov. 6, 2006. Yet another reason for adopting fixed date elections is that this measure will likely improve voter turnout because elections will be held in October, except when a government loses the confidence of the House. The weather is generally favourable in most parts of the country. Fewer people are transient. So, for example, most students will not be in transition between home and school at that time and will be able to vote. Moreover, seniors will not be deterred from voting as they might be in colder months … The government’s bill provides that the date for the next general election is Monday, October 19, 2009.
John Baird, today. ”I haven’t met anybody who wants a fall election.”
By Aaron Wherry - Sunday, July 5, 2009 at 8:34 PM - 40 Comments
May 26, 2006. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he plans to introduce a bill to set fixed dates for federal elections, as part of a wider movement towards democratic reform. ”Fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar,” Harper told reporters in Victoria, B.C. on Friday. “They level the playing field for all parties.”
May 30, 2006. The Honourable Rob Nicholson, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform today introduced in the House of Commons a bill providing for fixed election dates every four years … “Fixed election dates will improve the fairness of Canada’s electoral system by eliminating the ability of governing parties to manipulate the timing of elections for partisan advantage,” stated Minister Nicholson.
May 2, 2007. The Senate has passed a bill that will require federal elections to be held every four years. The proposed legislation, Bill C-16, which is scheduled to receive royal assent on Thursday, would mean Oct. 19, 2009, is the date of the next general election.
May 18, 2007. A secret guidebook that details how to unleash chaos while chairing parliamentary committees has been given to select Tory MPs. Running some 200 pages including background material, the document — given only to Conservative chairmen — tells them how to favour government agendas, select party-friendly witnesses, coach favourable testimony, set in motion debate-obstructing delays and, if necessary, storm out of meetings to grind parliamentary business to a halt.
Oct. 3, 2007. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper challenged the three opposition parties on Wednesday to either give the minority Conservative government a broad mandate for its policies or force a general election. Continue…
By Philippe Gohier - Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 7:16 PM - 11 Comments
Stephen Harper and Jean Charest have to be glad they got their respective re-elections…
Stephen Harper and Jean Charest have to be glad they got their respective re-elections settled before the worst of the recession kicked in. If recent polls are any indication, both men appear to have dodged a bullet by going into elections late last year instead of waiting for the opposition parties to force them into one.
With the economy tanking Quebeckers, are in no mood for politics (and the politicians who play them). Support for Harper and the Conservatives is way, way down in the province according to two recent polls. This Strategic Counsel survey put the Tories’ popularity at a dismal 10 per cent and this Ipsos Reid poll puts it at a marginally better, but far from respectable, 16 per cent.
By Andrew Coyne - Friday, August 22, 2008 at 2:19 PM - 56 Comments
Elsewhere on this site you will find commentators shrugging indifferently at, if not actually…
Elsewhere on this site you will find commentators shrugging indifferently at, if not actually cheering on the Tories for their casual subversion of their own fixed-election-dates law. As usual, I find myself in the minority.
As I argue in the column, I think the Governor General would be well within her rights to prefer her First Minister’s initial advice, as duly considered and enacted into law — that Parliament should not be treated as a plaything, that lives or dies at the Prime Minister’s pleasure; that elections should not be rigged to the governing party’s advantage, in timing as in any other respect; that the public should not be deprived of fair and open competition among the various contenders for power — rather than submit to his later fit of expediency. If the law does not constrain her discretion, it plainly does his, which constraint he now pretends she must ignore. To collaborate in this would make nonsense of legislation she herself has signed, and as such would bring the Royal Prerogative into disrepute.
That’s assuming any of this means anything — that this is not just another Tory bluff. Since they are so at pains to convince everyone that they mean it this time, I can only assume that they don’t.