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TO THE POINT: Are Prince Edward Islanders more passionate about democracy?

Elections Canada
Elections Canada - Postmedia News Service
Don Mills
Don Mills

Voter turnout is one measure of civic engagement, and low voter turnout either indicates disenchantment with the process or satisfaction with the status quo.

While there was an increase in voter turnout in the 2015 federal election, this is contrary to the downward trend in voter turnout over the past 40 years.

It’s encouraging that there was a significant increase in the percentage of younger people who voted in the last election. Among the youngest eligible to vote (18-24), participation increased from 38 to 55 per cent. Among the next youngest cohort (25-34), participation increased from 45 to 57 per cent. This is a hopeful sign that younger people are becoming more actively engaged.

While it’s difficult to speculate on the motivations driving this apparent increase in interest, it may be driven by concerns about the environment and climate change, an issue that has taken hold among younger Canadians, as evidenced by the recent climate strike for the environment.

The health of democracy is dependent on citizen engagement in the political process. Too often, too many Canadians take our freedoms and democracy for granted.

The increase in participation rates in the last federal election may also have been impacted by the fresh young leadership of Justin Trudeau, who, much like his famous father, may have inspired more young people to vote. A charismatic leader can certainly impact voter turnout.

The current election may help confirm whether voter participation is on the rebound or if the last election was an outlier to the trends in voting over the past five decades.

The rise of other parties in Canada, especially the Greens, may impact voter participation as well. Newer parties, with different ideas, encourage those looking for alternatives to get engaged politically. Increasing voter support of third parties demonstrates this conclusion. More than a third of the population supports a party other than the Conservatives or Liberals. The disaffection with the two primary parties reflects the electorate’s disappointment with their performance over a long period of time and the willingness to consider other parties will likely to continue to grow.

In Atlantic Canada, PEI leads the country in voter turnout (77 per cent in the last election) – clearly, Islanders take their politics very seriously. On the other hand, voter turnout in NL is the lowest in the country (only 61 per cent). It’s hard to reconcile the vast difference in voting patterns between these two island provinces. The trend in voting on the Island at federally has been trending downwards since the early 1960s (despite an increase in the two most recent elections), while the trend in provincial voting continues to be at a consistently high level (although the most recent election had the lowest turnout in more than 50 years).

Interestingly, the lowest voter turnout is municipally, where it can be argued the population is most directly impacted by decisions of the local politicians. In the last municipal election, voter turnout in Charlottetown was 58 per cent, while in Summerside, it was 59 per cent. Lower turnout in municipal elections is often the result of uncontested seats, where the only candidate is acclaimed.

There has long been an argument around use of mandatory voting. Australia has the highest voter turnout among democracies at 92 per cent. It would be disappointing, in a free society, to have to resort to mandatory voting legislation. How low does voter turnout have to fall before we consider it? A party can win a majority with about 40 per cent of the vote today. Turnout in the last federal election was 68 per cent. That means the Liberals won a majority government from about 27 per cent of eligible voters. If turnouts ever fell below 50 per cent, it would be time to consider mandatory participation. What do you think?

Continued encouragement of young people to participate is key to ensuring reasonable voter turnout. The education system plays a role in voter engagement by informing youth of their role in a democracy and the importance of voting. Parents also have a responsibility: if you have children who are 18-24, how are you encouraging them to vote?

In the meantime, evaluate the party platforms, the local candidates, make an informed decision and vote. Encourage family members to vote, especially younger age groups. Do your part to protect and nourish our freedoms and democracy; let’s not take either for granted.

Don Mills is the former owner of Corporate Research Associates and a recognized expert in data trends in Atlantic Canada. He can be contacted at dmillshfx@gmail.com or on Twitter at @donmillshfx.

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