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    Will A Majority Of Canada’s Most Populous Province

                   Finally Get Out And Vote in 2018?


By Randall White

The Ontario election, now just five months away, won’t be the only big democratic excitement in Canada, or even North America, in 2018.

There will also be provincial elections in New Brunswick on September 24, and Quebec on October 1. Then there are Mexican general elections on July 1 — and the U.S. congressional midterms on November 6.

Yet the deepest question about June 7 in Ontario may still be: Will a majority of the practically sovereign people in Canada’s most populous province finally care enough to get out and vote?

Ontario democracy has suffered from a declining voter turnout syndrome for virtually all the 21st century, so far. On the other hand, in a spirit of election-year optimism, there is a glimmer of evidence-based hope that this could be changing in 2018. 

Consider the historical voter turnout table available on the Elections Ontario website. It reports broadly comparable measures for all 41 provincial elections, from 1867 to 2014.   

As the table shows, there has been some tendency for turnout in Ontario provincial elections to decline over the life of the Canadian confederation, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. 

More than 70% of eligible voters have turned out in nine of Ontario’s 41 elections to date. The first was in 1867 and the last in 1971. Conversely, turnout has been below 60% in 10 elections. The first was in 1923 and the last in 2014.

There is similarly little doubt that the old Ontario “agrarian democracy” dominated by the 19th century family farm was somewhat more enthusiastic about elections than the succeeding new industrial society of the 20th century.

It is probably true as well that part of the broad decline in voter turnout over the past 150 years reflects progressive expansions in the size of the electorate.

The voters of the 19th century agrarian democracy were largely older male owners of family farms and urban real estate. The names on voters’ lists at confederation in 1867 accounted for only about 13% of the total population. 

By the start of the 20th century Ontario had extended the franchise to something close to most adult males — accounting for about 25% of the total population. Women were added late in the First World War, in time for the election of 1919. By the 1920s the names on voters’ lists accounted for more than half the total population. 

Continuing reforms after the Second World War (enfranchising such wrongfully excluded groups as First Nations on reserves, and lowering the voting age to 18) continued to increase the size of the electorate. By the 1980s eligible voters accounted for about two-thirds of the total population.     

But as the share of the population eligible to vote has grown, it seems, maintaining earlier high shares of eligible voters actually voting has become a somewhat more challenging assignment.

Yet even when all such due allowances are made, the most recent long-term decline in Ontario voter turnout in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been unusually precipitous.

The glimmer of evidence-based hope in this most recent troubling picture is that voter turnout was in fact slightly higher in the last election in 2014 (51.3%) than in 2011. 

And there are a few reasons for guessing that in Canada’s most populous province and similar places elsewhere we’re now in a time when voters are starting to take more interest in what governments may or may not be able to do for them.

The last turnout over 70%, in 1971 (73.5%), happened when William Davis saved the already 28-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty for another 14 years, by joining the Stop the Spadina Expressway movement in the provincial capital, at the end of the socially turbulent 1960s.

There have been many changes of various kinds north of the Great Lakes over the past several decades. Are we now in another time of relative turbulence that might continue to push the 51.3% turnout in 2014 higher in 2018?  

Discovering whether, even in a diverse, economically developed place like Ontario, eligible voters are worrying a little more these days about who is running their governments is just one of the reasons for finding the June 7, 2018 Ontario election quite fascinating — regardless of who finally wins or loses.































About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : January 07, 2018

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