Time to act on Ontario’s voter turnout fiasco

By Dave Branton-Brown

The results of another Ontario election are in and once again almost half of all registered voters didn’t show up to cast ballots. Voter turnout in Ontario is destined to keep falling and nothing seems able to reverse the trend.

When a mere 53 per cent of registered voters show up to the polls it’s time to realize that many Ontarians take their right to vote for granted.

It’s worth noting that voter turnout in Ottawa Centre this election, at 60 per cent, was about 7 per cent above the provincial turnout. But in the last three provincial elections the riding’s turnout has been much closer to the shrinking, province-wide numbers, according to Elections Ontario.

Still, all hope is not lost. There are a few things that might bring Ontarians back to the polls.

One of the benefits cited by mixed-member proportional supporters is that it could help boost voter participation, says elections expert Jon Pammett.

But in light of the electoral reform referendum result, it might be time to consider compulsory voting as a solution to Ontario’s voter turnout problem.

Party leaders in the province don’t take compulsory voting seriously.

Opposition leader John Tory in 2005 briefly addressed low voter turnout and dismisses compulsory voting as a solution.

“People will come out to vote again when politicians give them reasons to have confidence in the system,” he said in a speech.

The 2007 election shows that the people of Ontario are still searching for those reasons.

Those that think compulsory voting is a radical idea or that Ontario is not facing a crisis need only to look at the numbers. Voter turnout in Ontario has dropped steadily since 64 per cent of people headed to the polls in 1990.

The decline reflects similar trends in federal and other provincial elections over the last decade. Voter turnout in federal elections dropped from 75 per cent in 1988 to 61 per cent in 2004, though it rebounded to 65 per cent in 2006 according to Elections Canada.

It’s time to accept the fact that a television ad or poster on a city bus won’t bring people out to vote. Postcards and brochures from Elections Ontario are too easily tossed away with the rest of the junk mail.

This year’s all-time low for voter turnout in the province is especially disheartening – and somewhat ironic – given that electoral reform was on the table.

Mixed-member proportional supporters say the system would help address the problem of “wasted” votes under the first-past-the-post system. If a voter chooses a losing candidate, at least that person can make an impact with their party vote. People might once again have faith in politics if they feel like they can always make a difference.

But it seems people who do vote in this province fear or disagree with electoral reform.

After all, 63 per cent of Ontario voters prefer the age-old first-past-the-post system. Whether they just don’t know enough about the new system is another debate, but it is clear that the mixed-member proportional faithful in Ontario have a lot of work to do.

In light of electoral reform’s failure in the province, compulsory voting should be seriously considered. There are a number of reasons why it’s a good option for Ontario. But the biggest is that it would likely get more people interested in politics.

Some Canadians stay away from the polls because they are uninterested or feel they don’t know enough about the issues to make a good decision, according to an Elections Canada survey from 2000.

Take the recent Ontario election for example. It wasn’t easy to follow party platforms beyond the dominant faith-based schools issue.

The Elections Canada survey shows many people aren’t comfortable making uninformed decisions. If they were forced to the polls, they might start to pay more attention to politics.

Those against compulsory voting claim this could backfire and lead to uneducated votes. But if people still feel they don’t know enough, they can always spoil their ballot. The only cost to them is the 10 minute trip to the polling station – a small price to pay for a free and democratic society.

But what about personal freedoms and the choice to stay home on election day? It is clear that Ontarians are so used to free and open elections that they now take them for granted. It’s time for Ontario to treat voting as a civic duty, not a right.

Anyone who wonders how compulsory voting might work in the province need only look to countries like Belgium and Australia. Both have compulsory voting and are among the top-ranked countries for voter turnout.

Australia has compulsory voting at both the federal and state levels.

Voter turnout at the federal level hovers around 95 per cent. It has been this way since compulsory voting was introduced in the 1920s, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. At the state level, voter turnout often still reaches above 90 per cent.

Australians don’t face very harsh penalties for not voting. The fine is a tiny $20, though it can eventually lead to a $50 fine or harsher penalties like community service and court fees.

But it’s clear that most Australians would rather head to the polls. A large reason could be that they now see voting as a positive contribution or a civic duty.

Ontarians need to start thinking of voting as a positive contribution to society – not a hassle or a pointless waste of time.

It’s clear that public campaigns just aren’t getting people to the polls. It’s time for Elections Ontario and the provincial government to consider compulsory voting.