Economist Werner Antweiler analyzed the movement of voters - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 10 | Oct. 2, 2008
Re-engaging Non-voters Key to Election Victory: UBC Study
By Lorraine Chan
The fight for the elusive swing vote may not be the key to a party’s victory, says a UBC researcher. Data shows that victory rather lies in turning non-voters into voters.
In the first study of its kind, UBC economist Werner Antweiler looks at the voter migration patterns of the three most recent federals elections in Canada and the three most recent provincial elections in B.C.
His findings suggest that the real deal-breakers during a tight electoral race reside within the large pool of non-voters who are “tethered” to a party, but decide to abstain from voting.
“The swing vote alone doesn’t decide elections,” observes Antweiler, an associate professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.
“In my view, it comes down to giving the people who normally vote for a party a reason why they should come out and vote again for that party,” he says. “What carries much more weight is non-voters turning into voters, and voters turning into non-voters.”
More than eight million eligible voters stayed at home in each of the last three federal elections. In 2000, 2004, and 2006, only about 60 to 64 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots.
Using sophisticated statistical techniques, Antweiler analyzed aggregate riding-by-riding election data to track the inflow and outflow of voters from each party and from the pool of non-voters. His findings were recently published in the journal Electoral Studies.
Antweiler says previous research shows that Canadian voters tend to exhibit a degree of “tethered partisanship.”
“People’s political choices don’t change much over their lifetime. They would rather abstain than switch support to a less-favoured party. Most voters don’t float and drift; they’re tethered.” To test his theory, Antweiler looked at the 1996, 2001 and 2005 provincial elections in B.C. He found that in 2001, disaffected NDP voters did not massively switch their preferences to other parties, but merely abstained. That year, 124,000 of the people who voted NDP in 1996 stayed home. However, the NDP regained much of its vote in the following provincial election in 2005. About 208,000 voters who sat out on the previous 2001 election turned up to vote, or voted for the first time. The 2001 non-voters who voted in the 2005 provincial election split their preferences roughly 30 per cent and 70 per cent between the B.C. Liberals and the NDP, respectively. “The results indicate that NDP sympathizers who abstained in 2001 returned to their original preference in 2005.”
Compared to the B.C. provincial scene, the federal elections yielded much more complex findings, says Antweiler. Voter migration patterns varied widely from region to region. In addition, the 2004 merger between the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance Party birthed the Conservative Party of Canada.
This “severed” tether forced voters to find new homes, notes Antweiler.
In Ontario, most of the Canadian Alliance voters shifted loyalties to the new Conservative Party, but about 30 per cent of the Progressive Conservative voters in 2000 drifted to the Liberal Party in 2004. This gain for the Liberal Party, however, was offset by 13 per cent of its 2000 voters staying at home in 2004. In Western Canada, the disruption for the new Conservative Party was even more significant, but it mattered less for seats in the House of Commons. About 13 per cent of Canadian Alliance voters simply abstained, “presumably unhappy or uncertain about the direction of the new merged party,” says Antweiler. More dramatically, the base of the Progressive Conservatives collapsed in Western Canada. Only about 36 per cent of those who voted Progressive Conservative in 2000 cast their ballot for the new Conservative Party in 2004; the rest went elsewhere or abstained. Antweiler says the high volatility of the vote in Quebec means that many federal elections are won and lost in this province. His findings show that in 2006, only about 60 per cent of Liberal Party voters in 2004 cast their ballot again for the Liberal Party in 2006, while another 23 per cent withdrew their support by not voting.
In comparison, the Conservative Party gained new support by attracting more than 500,000 votes from the pool of 2004 non-voters and new voters in Quebec.
Antweiler cautions that the relatively large simultaneous gains and losses of voters for the Conservative Party in Quebec also signify the party’s lack of consolidation in this province.
“Given the unsettled state of voter preferences in Quebec, it is more likely than not that Quebec will be the key political battleground during the forthcoming federal election.” For more information about voter migration research, visit: http://strategy.sauder.ubc.ca/antweiler/votermigration