Hey Ontario, you just set a record!
The June 2 provincial election saw the lowest voter turnout in the history of the province. A whopping 57% of you chose not to cast a ballot.
No, you shouldn’t be proud of this achievement. In fact, many people are really upset about it — so upset that there have been loud calls to make voting mandatory. Many point to the Australian system where you can be fined for not voting, leading to about 90% voter turnout in the Land Down Under. Why not try it here at home?
I am always skeptical about calls to force people to vote.
First, have you ever noticed that the loudest voices are often those unhappy with the most recent election result? I have yet to hear a single Doug Ford supporter, for example, call for mandatory voting. In fact, with a few notable exceptions, most calling for its introduction appear to be people angry that the PCs won. They seem convinced that if we had dragged those 57% away from watching the hockey game to vote, Ontario would have gotten the progressive government it deserves.
Admittedly, some advocates of mandatory voting try to move beyond their personal partisan interests.
They argue that a low voter turnout is a disturbing sign of citizen disengagement and democratic decline. To make matters worse, by turning their back on elections, those who choose not to vote make it easier for politicians to manipulate the system. Instead of trying to balance the interests of all those they represent, a low voter turnout allows our elected representatives simply to pander to those who tend to vote in large numbers — older people and the middle class – and ignore the needs of those who vote in smaller numbers — young people, the poor and the marginalized.
I still remain unconvinced that mandatory voting is the answer.
To be honest, I am not exactly sure what problem we are trying to fix. If this is only about increasing voter participation, then by all means drag people to the polls. Heck, instead of fining them for not voting, why not pay them? I bet that if everyone who showed up at the polling station got $25 cash, voter turnout would increase dramatically.
But deep down we all know that this is not a numbers issue. Low voter turnout is a symptom, it’s not the problem. Although some may choose to stay home because they are content with the status quo, many more simply don’t see the point in voting.
How do we re-engage these people? There are no easy answers, but I can tell you one thing, threatening them with a fine isn’t going to do the trick. Sure, it may force some of them out to the polls, but do you honestly believe it is going to change their attitude towards politics and government? Take someone who believes that “all politicians are the same — lazy liars who are in it for themselves.” Do you really think that the threat of a fine will cause them suddenly to study and compare party platforms while expressing newfound respect for the sacrifices made by those in public life?
Don’t take my word for it. I wasn’t joking when I suggested paying people to vote.
As I have written about before, in 2007 a team of researchers in Quebec gave students $25 to vote in the provincial election. Although it may have encouraged them to vote, the study found little evidence that it did anything to increase their knowledge of politics or level of political engagement.
Yes, we should be very concerned by low voter turnout, but our focus should be on the root causes. And here, there is a role to be played by all of us: Parents and teachers need to do a better job teaching kids about government, politics, and our civic responsibility. Our community, religious and business leaders need to step up to speak about the importance of political participation. Even our entertainment industry and social media influencers have a role. What if they stopped treating politicians and politics as easy punchlines and more emphasis was placed on their difficult work and the importance of civic engagement?
And most of all, our politicians and the media have lots of hard work to do. Part of the reason our political system is broken is because of the fierce partisanship and vicious attacks that have become the hallmark of contemporary political discourse. Finding positive ways to engage voters on a continual basis seems like a better way to ensure that Ontario stops breaking low-voter turnout records.
John Milloy, a former Ontario cabinet minister, is the director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College and practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. His most recent book, Politics and Faith in a Polarized World was published by Novalis in 2021. John can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.