February 7, 2017
On 1 February, the federal government announced it was no longer pursuing immediate changes to Canada’s voting system arguing that no “clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus” had emerged from the past year’s consultations.
While less attention-grabbing than changing the voting system, a serious focus on improving voter turnout and Canadians’ political engagement is long overdue. Low voter turnout should be a concern, not just because it seems somehow bad for “democracy”, but also because it tends to produce bad government.
Voter turnout steadily declined through the ‘90s and 2000s, and while 2015 saw the highest participation in a federal election since 1993, celebration seems premature.
It’s true that we’ve been trying for decades to get people to the polls and that the effects have been hard to notice. Is there anything we can do that will actually make a measurable difference?
Minister Gould’s predecessor brought a bill before Parliament that, among other things, would restore Elections Canada’s ability to promote voting through civic education – a power that was stripped in 2014. This is an important step, but there is a whole range of other evidence-based tools that the government ought to consider, too.
Simple Interventions: Nudging
Behavioural science has identified some of the social and psychological impulses behind our decisions to vote. We can use this information to design simple “nudges”. Here is some of what we know:
- Small changes in the language we use to encourage voting can make a big difference. One study surveyed eligible voters before a US presidential election, giving different groups identical surveys except for one key difference: Some people were asked if they thought it was important “to vote” (something you do), while others were asked if they thought it was important to “be a voter” (something you are). After taking the survey, the second group was much more likely to vote.
- Psychological research tells us that when we set goals, we should also make a plan to achieve them. It makes success more likely. This principle has been shown to apply to voting promotion. Phone calls to citizens which helped them form a voting plan for Election Day boosted turnout by 4.1 per cent. Standard calls which simply encouraged people to vote had no real effects.
- Designing elections in ways that make voting logistically easier can also help. Research finds that things like the distance to the nearest polling place have non-trivial effects on whether we make it there. There’s a particularly strong case for making it as easy as possible for young people to vote, by tackling points of friction that lead to youth not voting (like difficulty proving residency when away at college or university).
Moderate Approaches: Education and Empowerment
Further down the spectrum, there are some more concrete actions we can take, which will cost money and may take time, but could produce larger longer-term effects. For example:
- Everyone agrees that more education will increase voter turnout. Indeed, individuals’ educational attainment is one of the best predictors of whether they’ll vote. This is especially true of education that imparts political knowledge. For youth, interventions such as model parliaments and mock elections – which simultaneously educate youth while making the experience fun – are especially productive. Moreover, because voting is highly habitual, the fact that these interventions target youth mean that they can generate long-term returns, as they help youth set their voting habits for the rest of their lives.
- One important reason why citizens don’t vote is because they feel disempowered. One strategy to combat this is, quite simply, to give citizens some actual decision-making power. Initiatives of this sort include things like participatory budgeting where instead of City Hall deciding how funds allocated for community improvement projects are spent, residents of the neighbourhood in question are invited to participate and given the final say on these budget allocations.
In both cases, there isn’t yet enough research to prove conclusively that initiatives like this increase voter turnout. But both experiential learning opportunities and participatory budgeting do have positive impacts on political knowledge and lived experiences of democratic decision-making – two key components of the political engagement that drives voting habits.1
Bold Moves: Carrots and Sticks
Taken together, these small nudges and moderate level interventions could make a difference. It is even possible that combined they could arrest and reverse the decline in voter turnout over time. But this isn’t guaranteed. Many of the forces driving down voter turnout, such as declining consumption of news and the growing individualization of society, are rooted in massive social, economic, and technological changes that having only begun.2
If governments want to get serious and really prioritize increasing voter turnout, there are a few big moves that they can make that will almost certainly ensure a significant jump in participation. But these actions bring certain trade-offs, and are far more contentious. For example:
- On the surface, lowering the voting age – say to 16 – may not seem like a sure-fire way to increase voter turnout. The key, however, is that most 16-18 year olds will be in school when elections occur, allowing educators to make voting and a discussion of the election a part of the curriculum. Again, because of its habitual nature, getting a high percentage of 16-18 year olds to vote in the first election for which they are eligible has the potential to inculcate the habit in ways that will increase their future likelihood of voting.
- The most obvious way of raising voter turnout is to make voting mandatory. Currently, 22 countries do this. Mandatory voting is no panacea: Australia, even with a legal requirement to vote, only managed a turnout of 91.01 per cent in its 2016 election (though Australia’s lax punishment for not voting – a $20 fine – may help explain this). Perhaps more importantly, however, mandatory voting also results in a more informed electorate as individuals, spurred by the requirement to vote, become more engaged with politics. It also creates an electorate where political knowledge is more evenly spread.
As we move further across this spectrum we bump up against harder choices. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform itself recommended against mandatory voting, arguing that the right to vote includes the right not to vote.
While less attention-grabbing than changing the voting system, a serious focus on improving voter turnout and Canadians’ political engagement is long overdue.
Ultimately, how far along the spectrum we want to travel should be decided through vigorous debate. But if we’re serious about halting a multi-decade decline – in at least the quantity but perhaps also the quality of democratic participation – we should start by examining the entire toolkit at our disposal.
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Michael Crawford Urban
Feb 7, 2017