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Ontario election: Did opinion polling discourage residents from voting? Commentators are divided

Click to play video: 'Fact or Fiction: Did opinion polling discourage Ontarians from voting in the election? Commentators are divided' Fact or Fiction: Did opinion polling discourage Ontarians from voting in the election? Commentators are divided
WATCH: Which party is leading in the polls? Who would make the best premier? Some say Ontarians were discouraged to vote by a "barrage" polls ahead of the election. Others disagree. – Jun 17, 2022

Trisha Chandratilleke has never paid close attention to elections.

In her secondary school years, Canada’s politics and electoral system were vaguely mentioned, but largely skipped over.

As she grew older, her disinterest in elections was reaffirmed by what she says were years of broken promises from elected officials.

A 25-year-old masters student working minimum wage to pay off debt amid rising inflation, Chandratilleke says she never saw her demographic’s struggles represented, or addressed, in electoral campaigns.

“If I vote for anybody, what is it doing for me?” the Brampton, Ont. native told Global over Zoom.

Read more: Youth issues got short shrift during Ontario campaign, advocates say

And perhaps many Ontarians may agree, as the 2022 provincial election drew the worst voter turnout in province history.

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Only 43 per cent of eligible voters marked their ‘X’ this time around, according to preliminary results from Elections Ontario.

“It’s more of a popularity competition against everyone. That’s what I’ve always noticed about elections,” she said.

That argument is at the centre of criticism surrounding public opinion polls, and whether they potentially impact voter turnout.

“I think it does have a psychological effect [on voters],” political commentator Seher Shafiq told Global News.

“It benefits the political parties to know where they are at. But in terms of the general public, I don’t see how it makes anyone more informed about the issues that they’re voting on .”

Prior to June 2nd election day, multiple opinion polls from polling companies suggested the Progressive Conservative party was in the lead, or projected to win.

Shafiq says the data also indicated that the NDP and Liberal party were almost tied in second place. In their campaign, the NDP “didn’t really differentiate themselves from the Ontario Liberal party,” making it appear to voters that a ballot to either party wouldn’t make much of a difference.

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Read more: Ontario election sputters toward conclusion; pollster says voters unenthusiastic

A Queen’s University teaching fellow says the flow of opinion polling data quickly turned into a “barrage” that drowned out back-and-forth debate on actual issues that voters care about.

“Opinion polls are not the problem per se,” said Tim Abray. “They can be really helpful for political parties to survey the terrain and focus their spending …The problem is when they replace substantive conversation.”

“[Voters] were told for weeks in advance of this election that the outcome was all but certain,” he said.  “It creates a very strong sense of inevitability.”

And it can degrade the level of accountability that politicians are held to, said Abray, as journalists may focus on covering polling numbers as opposed to asking difficult questions. Politicians may also sail smoothly into victory without acknowledging, or drafting reform, on uncomfortable or pressing topics.

“I would like to see less polling. We’d end up with politicians in a position where they actually have to address the issues because they can’t just simply stand back and claim to be leading,” he said.

Read more: Conservatives told to stay quiet on leaked U.S. Supreme Court abortion draft decision

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We would also end up in a position where politicians can’t get an upper hand using misrepresented data or “push polls,” which Abray says he’s witnessed being deployed during the election to sway voters.

Following the election result, many have questioned whether polling indeed had a hand in discouraging voters to head to the ballot boxes.

But the senior VP of Ipsos Public Affairs says history has shown us that opinion polls are not the problem.

“Polling isn’t new,” said Sean Simpson.

“We’ve been polling in Canada during elections for 50 years, and yet, we’ve never had an abysmal turnout like we had here in Ontario this most recent election.”

Instead, Simpson says the  “unique” circumstances surrounding the Ontario election could have played more of a role on why voters were disengaged.

“We know that a growing proportion of voters saw that none of the parties would be able to fix a lot of the issues that they saw were top in the campaign,” he said, pointing to inflation, rising house prices and the climbing cost of gas tied to the Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Campaign leaders spent far too much time attacking each other, than focusing on easing these affordability anxieties in Ontarians lives, said Shafiq. Many voters may have also “really easily” missed the fact that a provincial election was even happening, she said, because people were going back to doing things in person, and travelling for the first time.

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There was also no “ballot box” question that created a sense of urgency for Ontarians to head to the polls, according to Simpson.

In the 2021 federal election, politicians’ plans for COVID-19 recovery plans took centre stage.  But during Ontario’s latest election, Simpson said, COVID-19 was no longer the top concern.

Read more: COVID takes a back seat as voters focus on affordability, health care ahead of Ontario election: poll

Apart from all that, Ontarians showed signs of being disinterested in their “uninspiring” leaders, said Simpson, and perhaps a feeling that their vote was entirely useless.

“I certainly think people would be more likely to turn out if we had an different electoral system that actually counted every vote, rather than first-past-the post system.  The fact that, in a certain riding, if you voted for second place, it has no impact on the composition of parliament — that’s frustrating.”

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Calls for an overhaul of Canada’s first-past-the-post system reignited following the Ontario election, as the PC party garnered close to 40 per cent of the vote, yet landed 83 of the 124 legislative seats.  Almost 53 per cent voted for the NDP, Liberals and Greens in total, but those parties will have a combined 40 legislative seats.

The Liberals, who won nearly a quarter of the popular vote, will hold just eight seats.

Read more: Ontario election result prompts renewed calls for electoral reform

The overhaul is a worthwhile consideration, says Abray, if Canada’s government wants to commit to representing the diverse voices of its people.

“You can’t really lay claim to being a democracy unless you are giving equal consideration to the variety of views that exist in your society.”

But even then, an overhaul would not be an easy journey, as the decision lies in the hands of politicians, who will continue to  “vote for a system that ensures their renewed election every time,” he said.

As she gears up for another week of juggling work and school, Chandratilleke could care less about opinion polls.

What will truly inspire her to leave her house and mark a ballot, she said, is when she sees her needs addressed in the parties’ campaigns.

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“As far as I’m concerned, that hasn’t happened.”

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