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What’s behind low voter turnout in Canada’s election? Experts seek answers

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Preliminary data from Canada’s pandemic election is showing a low voter turnout, sparking conversations among experts around its impact on the country’s democracy.

As of 8.45 p.m. ET Tuesday with 99.41 per cent of polls reporting, 16,134,539 of 27,366,297 registered electors showed up to vote — a turnout rate of 58.96 per cent.

That’s lower than the 2019 federal election, which saw 18,350,359 of 27,373,058 eligible voters cast ballots, resulting in a turnout of 67 per cent. Elections in 2015 and 2011 had turnout rates of 68.3 per cent and 61.1 per cent, respectively.

Read more: The Liberals won the election. What will be the toughest promises for them to keep?

Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, casts much of the blame for low voter turnout on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“There are two things that lead to a decline in turnout. One of them is whether or not people feel the election is of consequence, and the second thing is whether or not the friction that’s associated with the voting process is a low or high,” he told Global News.

“I would say in this instance, there was not a lot of interest in this election … and second, voting was hard.”

On election day, there were reports of long lines in many parts of the country. Several were spotted in Toronto and the GTA, including one in Vaughan which showed people lining up alongside a highway off-ramp to vote. Ipsos polling data also showed a growing number of Canadians surveyed felt the campaign shouldn’t have been happening.

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Bricker, whose company has done polling for Global News throughout the election, said a true test of Canada’s democracy will be during the next election.

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“People were upset about the election, no doubt, but I expect that we would have seen similar results to what we saw in the last election in terms of turnout, like around the mid 60s, simply because the dynamics were very similar,” he said.

“This is unique, it’s not a statement about Canadian democracy because if you look at the last two elections, voter turnout was at a high for the century.”

Read more: Winners and losers of the 2021 election

For John Beebe, who leads the democratic engagement exchange in the faculty of arts at Ryerson University in Toronto, the turnout data is “not good news.”

“We’ve historically had really high trust in our democratic institutions, in our election process … and I think that the challenges that they faced in this election are going to take some time to rebuild confidence in our elections,” he said.

“I don’t put it on Elections Canada, but it is a reality that there were huge challenges to the administration of the election.”

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He also attributes the drop in voter turnout to two factors. First, Beebe pointed to community organizations he’s worked with, saying they’ve struggled to engage new voters during the just-over-a-month-long pandemic election.

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Second, Elections Canada did not have on-campus voting for students, which Beebe said limited avenues for young people to vote. Couple that with back-to-school season in the same month, and heading to the polls may not have been as much of a priority for some, he said.

“I think for these community-based organizations, which were already stretched thin in terms of everything they were doing to respond to the pandemic, their ability to do outreach to new voters was really limited,” he said.

“I think we’re seeing the results of that as well, and we need to clearly invest more if we’re going to build a more vibrant and healthy democracy because we can’t be going backward.”

Voter turnout numbers to be updated

Updates to the voter turnout numbers began Tuesday afternoon, according to Elections Canada.

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Before election day, about 6.8 million Canadians voted either during advanced polling Sept. 10 to 13 or through special balloting either by mail or in-person at Elections Canada offices.

Spokesperson Dugald Maudsley told Global News that Elections Canada had 1,025,896 special ballots returned before the deadline, but that number will grow once the special ballots dropped off in person on election day, and those received but not yet processed at local offices, have been counted.

Read more: Businesses urge Liberals to ‘get back to work’ on pandemic recovery after election

Those ballots are being counted on Tuesday and are expected to be tallied by Wednesday at the earliest, he added.

However, in some ridings where races are too close to call, Elections Canada has warned it might take up to four days to finish counting the special ballots if there are high volumes or logistical challenges.

‘Snap elections pose a challenge’

While the data so far is preliminary, the voter turnout results are similar to Canada’s last snap election in 2008.

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Then, Prime Minister Stephen Harper dissolved parliament in order to seek a majority government. Voters rejected Harper’s push for power, but gave him a larger minority government.

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Close to 14 million of the 23 million eligible voters casted ballots in that election, resulting in a turnout of 58.8 per cent, data on Elections Canada’s website shows.

“Snap elections pose a challenge, particularly for engaging new voters and bringing new people into our democracy,” Beebe said.

“That’s one of the reasons that we’ve recommended that in the event of a snap election that we have a longer election period. Nobody’s looking for long U.S.-style elections, but I think two or three more weeks would allow us to do outreach and engagement to new voters who are the ones who often don’t show up in a snap election period.”

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Read more: Canada election: 5 things to watch for as Trudeau Liberals keep minority government

Bricker said voter turnout was low in 2008 because people weren’t interested in the campaign.

“In order for people to really participate in the election campaign strongly, they have to feel that something’s at stake,” he said.

“In that election, they knew Harper was going to win anyway.”

Trudeau bills win as ‘clear mandate’

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will hold onto his job as prime minister, but Canadians decided not to give him the majority government his critics claim was the reasoning for this election.

The decision by voters returns the Liberals to power in a minority government, forcing them to work with other parties. Still, Trudeau billed the results as a win.

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“You are sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to the brighter days ahead,” Trudeau said of the results, which are virtually identical to those in the Parliament he voluntarily asked the Governor General to dissolve in order to hold an election.

“What we’ve seen tonight is that millions of Canadians voted for a progressive plan.”

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He faced criticism from opposition parties and critics throughout the campaign for calling the election during the fourth wave of COVID-19.

Trudeau said it was necessary for Canadians to decide on which parties’ vision for the pandemic recovery they want to see put into place.

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Canada election: Jagmeet Singh blames Trudeau for low voter turnout – Sep 21, 2021

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh congratulated Trudeau early Tuesday and vowed his party will keep pushing for better access to health care and affordable homes.

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In his concession speech, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole emphasized the need for a “Team Canada” approach in Ottawa, something the parties all talked about during the beginning of the pandemic.

The pandemic election is the most expensive in Canadian history at an estimated $600 million.

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