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Voter Turnout in Canada sample essay

Voter turnout amongst democracies has become a very important topic to debate because “unequal turnout spells unequal political influence” (Rosenstone, 1982). Low voter turnout has become an important topic, especially during elections and a number of explanations have been offered in order to touch on the root of this problem. The factor that I will be focusing on is a state’s electoral system. For the purpose of this paper I am focusing on the question; does a state’s electoral system have an impact on voter turnout. As I have previously mentioned, there are many factors that one may attribute to voter participation and I will demonstrate using the most similar method that yes electoral systems do have an impact on voter turnout. The two countries that I have chosen to compare are Sweden; that uses list proportional representation (PR), and Canada; that uses first past the post (FPTP). I have chosen these two countries due to their vast similarities while remaining different in terms of electoral system.

Literature review

The importance of an engaged voter population can be seen simply by looking at the vast number of studies and theories that have been released on the topic. I would like to touch on some of these topics in relation to the two countries that I have chosen. There is no doubt that education is an extremely important aspect in one’s involvement in politics. It is argued that “the more schooling the individual has the more likely he [or she] is to register and vote in presidential elections.”(Lijphart, 1997) However; this cannot explain the 20% difference in voter turnout between Sweden and Canada as they are both very similar in education. Both have a literacy rate of 99% and in terms of expected school life, Sweden is 11 years and Canada is 12.(International Human Development Indicators, 2012) Another aspect to consider is mandatory voting. It is agreed upon that countries with mandatory voting laws put into place have relatively high turnout rates. The comparison has been made between Canada and Australia and how “Canada lacks mandatory voting laws […] holding Canadian turnout well below the observed rates in Australia” (Jackman, 1987). Another aspect that one must consider is a population’s wealth.

One study claimed “when a person suffers economic adversity his scarce resources are spent holding body and soul together, not remote concerns like politics. This cannot explain the discrepancy in my comparison as both Sweden and Canada have very similar average annual personal incomes with Sweden at $35,835 and Canada at $35,166(International Human Development Indicators, 2012). Another factor that has been argued to effect voter turnout is life expectancy. It has been argued that life expectancy can affect voter behaviour on an individual level (Strate, 1989). Again this cannot explain the discrepancy between Canada and Sweden as they both have a life expectancy of 81 years. Along the same lines as life expectancy is a state’s socio-economic status. Strate argues that socio-economic status like life expectancy affects a person’s faith in government on an individual level effecting voter behaviour (Strate, 1989). This also cannot explain the differences between Canada and Sweden as both rank amongst the top 10 on the Human Development Index.


Case Study #1: Sweden

Sweden is ranked as one of the highest states in the world in terms of voter turnout with “85% of registered voters and 83% of the eligible population” (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2012) voting in the last election. One would expect to find these sorts of numbers appearing in an election where participation is compulsory, but Sweden consistently maintains over 80% participation in elections while still remaining completely voluntary. One must first consider the Swedish electoral system that is in use. Sweden uses a list proportional representation electoral system which is very simple by PR standards and makes for the ideal model for a basic PR system.

“The Swedish Riksdagen (parliament) consists of 349 members, of whom 310 are elected in 29 constituencies” (Lundell, 2008). Larger constituencies receive more representatives and since Sweden is a bicameral system representatives are elected directly into parliament. Citizens vote for which party they would prefer as outlined on a list, once a party receives “4 percent of the national vote or 12 percent of the total vote in one constituency” (Lundell, 2008) they are able to receive representation.

The seats in parliament are awarded proportionally according to the support parties receive in different constituencies meaning that parties cannot focus on only one area but rather “seek to mobilize support everywhere”( Milner, 2004) thus eliminating the problem of regional domination as seen in FFTP systems. Because of this proportional division of the parliament, governmental power is dispersed throughout many parties. Dispersal of power can be seen in election results for example, 2006 saw seven parties represented within the parliament with five parties separated at most by 10 seats (Lundell 2008). This means that a more diverse audience will have a broader set of concerns considered. This also translates into people having more options in finding a party to better represent their concerns. A government with many parties that have a share in the power result in weaker parties that are always striving to maintain a hold in government. Since Sweden holds compulsory elections every four years, parties have a strong incentive to engage the voting population.

The intertwining of municipal and national representation in government leads to parties actively trying to meet the needs of as many people as possible. This along with knowing that your vote truly matters in an ongoing struggle for representation, and that it does not end with an overly powerful majority government leads to more political engagement amongst the population. More engagement will mean greater voter participation during elections.

Case Study #2: Canada

Majority plurality electoral systems are very rare for an advanced democracy to still use today. It is still used in the “lower chamber… in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, the United States”(Norris,1997 p.299). Like most of the few remaining industrialized nations that still use FPTP, Canada maintains a very poor level of voter turnout with only “61% of eligible voters”(Elections Canada, 2012) participating in the previous election. On average Canada has maintained voter turnouts of less than 70%.The Canadian electoral system may provide the answer to why this turnout is so low.

Because of the nature of FPTP only one winner is elected per riding with a representative needing only simple majority. This means that a single representative can be elected within a riding with only a small percentage of the vote. An example of this can be seen in the “Rimouski-Neigette-Temiscouata-Les Basques riding where Claude Guimond won in the 2011 with only 31% of the vote”(elections canada, 2012) meaning that 69% of the population in that area essentially without a political voice.

Non Proportional representation caused by simple majority also holds bar at the national level because only one winner is elected per region and many people within a constituency essentially go unaccounted for if their representative does not win. This leads to bloated majority governments being elected that are not representative of the population. For example, in the 2011 federal election the “Conservative party was elected with only 39% of the national vote”(Elections Canada, 2012) meaning that essentially uncontested power is placed in the hands of a single government that 61% of the population does not support. This leads to a very large percentage of the population feeling as if their vote had no purpose and that participating in an election makes no difference. If people knew that their vote was contributing directly to the amount of power that their party of choice received then they will feel more inclined to participate.

Because of proportionally over bloated parties such as “the right-wing British Columbia Liberals [that] won a provincial election, taking 97 per cent of the seats (all but 2) with just 58 per cent of the vote” (Carty, 2002 p.930) there tends to be very few parties that make any significant impact in government let alone have an opportunity to contend for a position of power. Power is attained through winning ridings which translate into seats. Due to the difficulties of organizing a concentration of power in a specific region, it becomes extremely difficult to form any sort of opposition, often leading to long lasting majority governments.

An example of this would be the Liberal party holding only 40% of the vote during the 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections maintaining their hold on government with no other party able to win nearly enough seats to challenge them”(Milner, 2004 p.13). Long lasting majority parties leave many Canadians feeling as if there is nothing that can be done in order to make political change due to the difficulties in mobilizing concentrated support. The longer a party is in power, the less involved the population becomes, this can be seen during the liberal governments of 1993, 1997, and 2000 when voter turnout dropped from 70% to 67% and finally to 61%” (Elections Canada, 2012).

This severely limits the ability for a small party to gain any sort of foothold in politics as well as a movement that is spread out across the nation to gain representation at the national level. “In the 2011 federal election, the Green Party only gained 0.3 percent of seats, despite receiving 3.9 percent of votes”(Milner, 2004 p.12). Some would argue that this is a good aspect as it limits the rise of extremist parties and movements, but part of a democracy is to allow the will of the people to dictate the direction of a political agenda. If there were more options available in terms of parties that cover a wider range of issues, then more of the population could be reached on a personal level leaving more people feeling engaged in politics.

Another aspect of FPTP that is criticized is regional representation. In Canada, some argue that regional representation is an issue because representatives must focus on a specific area rather than “seek to mobilize support everywhere”( Milner, 2004 p.11). Because candidates are focused on entertaining the will of a regional constituency the will of a broad populations are not taken into account whereas in a proportional representation electoral system representatives are focused on pleasing as many people as possible in order to secure a wide national vote. This is all due to a non-proportional amount of representation given to regions causing parties to focus efforts on securing as many seats as possible. “During the 1997 elections, the Alliance received a million votes but were spread out over many regions and won only two seats, whereas the Liberals received only 48.5% the votes and 101 out of 103 of the seats”(Milner, 1997 p.8) simply because two-thirds of the liberal MPs were elected from Ontario.

Some would argue that the way in which ridings are divided is also not proportional, allocating too much focus on certain regions forcing “Canada… to have electoral laws and constitutional provisions requiring delimitations every ten years”(Norris, 1997 p.306) in order to try and keep regional seat allocation fair and proportional. The largest problems with this sort of regional activity caused by FPTP are resentment caused by an underrepresented minority population as well as intensifying regional cleavages. Essentially, this reinforces the idea that politics is something that one cannot change and that it is based solely on where you live and socioeconomic status. This resentment leads to minority populations throughout Canada to have little interest in politics.

Another negative aspect as a result of FPTP contributing to poor voting practice is strategic voting. The nature of a FPTP electoral system leads to only one winner. Sometimes, within this system people vote for a party more likely to beat out another political player, rather than a representative that is more aligned with their own beliefs. The idea is that rather than wasting a vote on a party that will never have enough support to gain political influence, one will feel more inclined to attempt to block an undesirable party from gaining power. This has become extremely evident in Quebec where there are often separatist undertones with people voting based on which party is promoting separation or federalism. This was extremely visible in the recent Quebec provincial election when it was argued that “federalists need to do more than just pick their favourite: They need to vote strategically” (Kheiriddin, 2012) in an attempt to prevent a separatist government from gaining power.

Hypothesis / Operationalization

I hypothesize that in states that use a proportional representation electoral system voter turnout will be higher than in states that use a first past the post electoral system. I also hypothesize that states that once employed a first past the post system and then switch to a proportional representation system found a dramatic increase in voter turnout. In order to establish a state’s electoral system one must search through a countries rules and practices. The best place to locate this information is through the countries official government website such as Elections Canada. In order to build on my hypothesis I would need to expand the most similar method to cover more states. I need to expand my research to include the remaining modern democratic states that participate in FPTP. I would need to compare Great Britain, India and The United States to other states participating in proportional representation.

Through developing more case studies and analyzing many states in depth, I will be able to further legitimize my findings. To get a better idea of the impact of a political party remaining in power for an extended period of time I would analyze each states individual election history and group extended government terms together and look for a pattern that indicates a decrease in voter turnout with each passing term in office. Another important statistic that I will need to touch on is the changes in voter turnout that states participating in proportional representation have experienced in comparison to first past that post. I will need to extensively analyze voter turnout from when these countries practiced first past the post and compare results to when they switched to proportional representation onwards.


I feel that through the extension analysis to include more nations into this research my results will become more concrete. Inclusion of Britain, the United States, India and Canada all must be studied and compared extensively due to the similarities that they share with many other industrialized powers that have elected to use PR. I feel that through extensive analysis it will become even clearer that electoral systems have a drastic effect on a population’s participation in elections, and that those who have elected to change to proportional representation have enjoyed a much more engaged population.


Carty, R. (2002). Canada. European Journal of Political Research, 41(7-8), 927-930. “Elections Canada Online | Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums .” Elections Canada On-line – Élections Canada en ligne. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2012.

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