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The first two elections are crucial for shaping the habits of new voters, say UBC political scientists - photo by Martin Dee
The first two elections are crucial for shaping the habits of new voters, say UBC political scientists - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 3 | Mar. 1, 2007

Competition Drives Poll Results

By Lorraine Chan

Did an entire generation of Canadians learn not to vote?

A study by UBC political scientists would say yes. Alienation, Indifference, Competitiveness and Turnout: Evidence from Canada, 1988-2004 looks at voting patterns within Canadian federal ridings over a decade and a half, especially among 18-26 year-olds.

The authors suggest that a massive decline in turnout was directly linked to a massive decline in political competitiveness. And when competitiveness increases so will voter turnout, they argue, as was the case during Canada’s most recent federal election in 2006.

“The first couple of elections are crucial for shaping the habits of new voters,” says Amanda Bittner, a UBC doctoral candidate in the Dept. of Political Science. “The evidence suggests that people who start out in a non-competitive political environment don’t ever become regular voters.”

The study investigates the widespread and steep falloff in voter turnout, charting the years before and after one of the most dramatic federal elections in Canada’s history. In 1993, the Liberals defeated Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservative (PC) government, which lost all but two of its 151 seats. Until 2003 when the Conservative Party of Canada rose from the ashes of the PC and Reform parties, no effective opposition had challenged the Liberals.

Bittner says the frustration of Canadians translated into a fragmented popular vote. She compares the 1988 federal election, which drew 75 per cent of registered voters, to the 2000 national election, which saw 61 per cent turnout.

The 2004 federal race had an even lower voter turnout with about 13.5 million from a total of 22.3 million eligible Canadians. At 60.5 per cent, this was the worst electorate response to a national election since Confederation in 1867. 

“Some of that damage has been repaired,” says Bittner, pointing out that 65 per cent of registered voters turned up at the polls during the 2006 federal election.

The study co-authors are recent UBC PhD grad Scott Matthews, now a political science professor at Queen’s University, and Richard Johnston, who left UBC as political science department head to direct election studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

They found that between 1988 and 2000, the decline among middle-aged voters -- the median age being 50 years old -- was about two percentage points. In comparison, voter turnout in the youngest age groups dropped by about 20 points.

“Put another way,” says Bittner, “a voter coming of age in 1988 was about 20 percentage points less likely than a 50-year-old to claim they have voted. In 2000, the gap was almost 40 points. This is a huge shift in only a short period of time.”

Bittner adds, “Our models predict that even once things become more competitive, a lag occurs because those who have already been socialized as non-voters don’t just suddenly start voting. Basically, the cause is structural, and the cure is also structural -- but it may never fix the damage that was done for the ‘90s generation of non-voters.”

The research incorporated other variables such as the voters’ education, income, gender and marital status.

“For a long time there was never any real sense that the Liberals would lose an election,” says Bittner. “Voters who began coming of age to vote in the 1990s were exposed to a political world in which competition was weak, in which the local result was commonly a foregone conclusion. Only in 2004 was some of that damage repaired.”

The researchers found that British Columbia exhibited bigger shifts, with voter turnout falling below the national average and then bouncing well above it. 

“Much of the B.C. pattern reflects the fortunes of the NDP, which collapsed in 1993 and recovered in 2004,” explains Bittner.

She adds Canadians didn’t see real change until the 2004 election. “The party system became more competitive with the Reform and PC party merging. That caused something new to happen. Voter levels haven’t dropped further. They’ve leveled off.”

Bittner and her colleagues suggest that if politicians are seeking to win the hearts and minds of young voters, true competition is a strong draw. She says political theory often attributes the low turnout among young people to culture, “that unlike older generations, they don’t feel a sense of duty.”

“We’re saying it’s not that simple. There’s no quick fix,” she says. “Parties aren’t going to convince a young person to vote through commercials with rappers on stage.”

The researchers argue that a cultural explanation doesn’t account for a huge drop in turnout over the past 10 years. “The massive decline is so large a shift and it just happens to coincide with a shift in the party system,” says Bittner.

The study has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Social Sciences Council of Canada.

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Last reviewed 27-Feb-2007

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