04 December 2015

Voter turn-out #nlpoli

Political scientist Stephen Tomblin is concerned about the low voter turn-out in the recent elections.

Tomblin thinks it is a sign that voters are disconnected from the political system.  The recent lacklustre election didn’t have the political parties connecting with voters in a meaningful way.  There are lots of issues politicians could have discussed with voters but they just didn’t bother.

Tomblin makes some good points but there are some things about recent elections we should consider as we try and put some meaning on the recent election.

Some points to ponder

First, we have to make sure we have a problem.

Here are about 32 years worth of election vote totals in Newfoundland for the official Elections Newfoundland and Labrador accounts.

 electionsnl stats

.The last three elections have had roughly the same number of voters.  The 2003 election saw 50,000 more voters show up at the polls.  More voters turned out in the early 1990s but then again there were more than 70,000 more residents in the province then.  This is just a preliminary skim but the variation in voting numbers might be correlated to changes in the adult population.  Has anyone done a study?

That leads us to the second consideration:  we need to have a good understanding of why voters show up to cast a ballot and why they don’t.

Tomblin thinks there is a connection between a discussion of policy issues and how many folks come vote. Others, your humble e-scribbler included, would suggest that a competition would drive numbers up as two or more parties fought to win.

Take a look at the unofficial results from Monday’s vote. The highest turn-out was in Cape St. Francis where the incumbent Conservative beat the challenging Liberal by a vote of 4086 to 1613. The New Democrat poll fewer than 500 votes. In Ferryland, where the Tory beat the Liberal by a mere 500 votes, turn-out was 62%.

There’s no obvious connection between a hotly contested race and the number of people who vote. There’s also no apparent connection between a discussion of policy and the number of voters.

Maybe other factors are at play.  Someone should take a look at them.

Third, consider that Elections NL might not have reliable figures for the pool of eligible voters.  Tomblin was responding to the official calculation that the recent election showed the lowest voter turn-out ever for a provincial election.

But that number – 55% -  is a calculation of how many people voted compared to how many people were eligible to vote.  But what if Elections NL had no reliable idea of how many people were actually eligible to vote in the first place?

Notice that the number of eligible voters in the province continues to climb even as the population decline.  That might be explained by an aging population.  But then just compare – for argument’s sake – the population numbers for 2011 and compare them to the number of eligible voters listed by Elections NL.  There’s a discrepancy measured in the tens of thousands between the population over age 20 and the number of eligible voters listed by the elections office.

One candidate in a by-election in the past decade tells the story of getting a voters list with 9,500 names on it.  He says that more than 10 of the list was pure junk and the campaign canvassing couldn’t reconcile with the Elections NL data.  When the Elections office issued a revised voters list, the number of names on the new list actually went up instead of down, thereby widening the gap between experience on the ground and the official count of eligible voters.

Fourth, if we are worried about engaging people in politics, we  might want to think of other issues to be concerned about other than the number of people who vote.  

Think of it this way.  As much as our political system is theoretically built on the input of voters at the polls, the political culture tends to diminish the role of electors.  One of the biggest issues affecting the provincial government’s financial problems and the health of the provincial economy. 

Voters were concerned about it.  They told pollsters that.  yet the parties didn’t spend much time talking about that issue.  The provincial government actually withheld crucial information and the Premier lied about its availability.  Neither of the parties made that an issue.

In 2011, voters were concerned about health care. The parties talked about Muskrat Falls and even that talk was largely about things that weren’t true.

This fourth point is related to Tomblin’s concern for a discussion of issues but it changes the focus to the role of voters. 

Tomblin’s raised a good point.  We need to talk it out a bit more to sort out what the real issue is.