What if they held an election and nobody came?

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October 8, 2019

What if they held an election and nobody came?

By Greg Weston

As ordinary Canadians prepare to celebrate the end of a federal election marked by personal mudslinging, lacklustre leadership, and competing promises of a chicken in every pot, party strategists and pollsters are beginning to ponder the real possibility that a game-changing number of uninspired voters will opt for none of the above and stay home on election day.

This kind of dysfunction is nothing new, although it is a relatively recent ailment in the history of Canadian democracy — the five worst voter turnouts in federal elections since Confederation all occurred in the past 20 years. In the 42 elections held since 1867, the average voter turnout has been 70.7 per cent, while in the six elections since 2000, turnout slipped to 60.9 per cent.

Just as all Canadians have reason to be concerned about the country’s democratic health when two out of every five citizens don’t vote, few things keep campaign strategists awake at night more than voter turnout. After all, what’s the point of convincing people to support your party if they don’t show up to cast their ballot?

As the current federal election heads into the home stretch to E-Day on Oct. 21, recent history suggests each of the major political parties has its own good reasons to be losing sleep over voter turnout. Consider:

Liberals: Likely no one on the campaign trail is tossing and turning over voter turnout more than the Grits. The two of the lowest voter showings in the history of Canadian federal elections were in 2008 (58.8 per cent) and 2011 (61.4 per cent) respectively, and almost all of that drop in electoral participation appears to have been at the expense of the Liberals. The results were crushing defeats of the Grits.

While there are myriad reasons people don’t show up to vote, there can be little doubt the Liberals’ unpopular leaders at the time – Stephane Dion in 2008, and Michael Ignatieff in 2011 – motivated many supporters to sit on their hands. So, what does that tell us about Justin Trudeau?

Far from being relegated to the trash heap of public opinion like his two predecessors, Trudeau’s personal brand has nonetheless been battered in political punchouts over SNC Lavalin, blackfaces, and about-faces on previous election promises. Today, polls show support for him as preferred prime minister has been sharply reduced, albeit he still runs ahead of Conservative leader Andrew Sheer and the rest of the party leaders.

All of which could have a significant impact on voter turnout that depends so much on which party’s supporters are more motivated to show up on election day. Will it be the Conservatives bolstered by Trudeau’s stumbles and a race so tight they can almost smell power? Or will Grits watching their leader falling from grace come to the aid of the party anyway, if only to keep the keys to the kingdom?

One group of former Liberal supporters commanding the full attention of the Liberal campaign is the estimated 1.2 million young Canadians whom Trudeau helped attract to the voting booth for the first time in 2015. A demographic historically known for its general aversion to federal elections, there’s no question their surprise participation in the last election played a pivotal role in electing the Liberals. Conversely, if they go back to sitting on the sidelines this time, a mass-no-show could be enough to send JT & Co. back to the opposition benches.

Finally, low voter turnout has the potential to belie public opinion polls: Many would-be Grit supporters down on their own party and leadership, but unwilling to vote for any of the alternatives, may well be telling the pollsters their ballot preference today is Liberal while their final decision will be to not vote at all.

Conservatives: Among all the federal parties in the current race, recent history suggests the Conservatives have the most loyal core of supporters, and therefore arguably the most to gain from an overall low voter turnout that disproportionately suppresses the other parties. In the past four elections, Stephen Harper’s party garnered a similar number of supporters every time. Even when they lost power in 2015 to a Liberal groundswell, the Conservatives’ support dropped only slightly from the previous election.

Despite the traditional loyalty of the Conservative flock under Harper’s leadership, party strategists are almost certainly having their share of sleepless nights over their new leader. Andrew Scheer isn’t exactly setting the country on fire with inspirational leadership. On the contrary, his public image as big, bland and very conservative has no doubt contributed to the party’s failure to leap ahead in public opinion, despite the past 18 months of Liberal woes.

To seriously challenge Trudeau, Scheer must convince small-c conservative Liberals to abandon their party and leader, and move to him and his party, rather than just staying home in protest and not voting.

Bottom line: In a race where the Liberals and Conservatives are neck-and-neck in the home stretch, it wouldn’t take much to tip the outcome by would-be CPC voters staying home on election day because they just can’t warm to either Scheer or Trudeau as PM.

New Democrats:  The bad news for the NDP and leader Jagmeet Singh is that barring a huge turnaround, their level of support in this election has been so far into the basement of public opinion relative to the other two major parties that they will be lucky to win the dozen seats needed to maintain official party status in Parliament.

The good news is the NDP support is so low that it is probably safe to predict those remaining stalwarts still proudly wearing orange today would walk through fire to get to the polling booth on Oct. 21. In that sense, the party would probably benefit from an overall low voter turnout that would almost certainly hit the Liberals much harder than the NDP.

Greens and People’s Party: While some pundits seem to have high hopes for the Green Party of Elizabeth May in this election, the polls aren’t yet showing signs of a green wave, and without one, the impact of an overall low voter participation is likely to be minimal. Ditto for the People’s Party of the hard right, and its leader Maxime Bernier — voter turnout doesn’t matter much when you don’t have a lot of them to start.

Finally, in Quebec, a low voter turnout would likely have the most impact on the resurgent Bloc Quebecois and indirectly the national outcome. Polls show the separatist party that was all but marginalized in the last election is now running second in Quebec behind the Liberals. Much of the BQ’s sudden popularity is from disaffected supporters of other parties who are looking for a place to park their votes in protest, and in an election with low voter turnout, parked protest votes tend to be no-shows. On the other hand, the BQ has momentum and a high voter turnout could deprive the Liberals of seats they are counting on to win a majority government.

Whatever else happens along the final stretch of Campaign 2019, a low voter turnout could produce a surprise election outcome. And if the no-shows stay away in sufficient numbers affecting one party more than another, the choice of Canada’s next prime minister could be decided as much by those who didn’t vote as by those who did.