Boring campaign behind poor voter turnout: analysts
TORONTO - An election campaign that failed to connect with voters and a nationwide trend of declining voter participation may account for why voter turnout in Wednesday's provincial election reached an all-time low, observers say.
Elections Ontario said 52.8 per cent of eligible voters - about 4.4 million people - cast a vote in the election that saw the Liberals secure another majority government.
That's down from the 2003 election, in which 56.9 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, and from the previous record low of 54.7 per cent set in 1923, when voters tossed out the United Farmers of Ontario-Labour coalition government of Ernest C. Drury, in favour of the Conservatives.
There were few changes to the distribution of seats in the legislature because the campaign was lacking any high-profile, contentious issues, said Daniel Rubenson, a professor of political science at Ryerson University.
"I think a lot of people were wondering why we were having an election,'' Rubenson said.
Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory touched off the only real controversy, promising to extend funding to faith-based schools that opt into the public system, only to back away from the idea in the campaign's final days by offering caucus members a free vote in the legislature.
"At the margins there are things that matter and differences between the parties, but in general those aren't large enough to really drive people to the polls,'' Rubenson said.
In fact, low turnout has become the norm across Canada, said Peter Graefe, a professor of political science at McMaster University.
According to Elections Canada, 64.7 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2006 federal election.
"I think we're seeing the rise of individualized forms of civic engagement, rather than the more collective ones of politics,'' Graefe said.
People who are concerned about the environment may choose to join Greenpeace or change their own lifestyles, instead of expecting political parties to make a difference, he added.
"Ontarians don't seem to see politics as a way to deal with issues they claim to concern them.''
There's also a generation effect, where young people aren't engaged in partisan politics and elections to the same degree as earlier generations, Graefe said.
"It doesn't mean that they're less political, but that they're doing their politics in other places.''
Civics education in high schools is also lacking, he said, leaving younger voters will little knowledge of political institutions. That's ruining the system because they don't start voting in greater numbers as they grow older, he said.
Tory, whose campaign was so widely panned that he failed to win a seat in his home riding in Toronto, said people have come to think that voting doesn't matter.
"I think (McGuinty's) broken promises have a lot to do with it,'' he said.
"If you spend your time during the election campaign listening carefully and actually study the issues and the platforms, then you go vote, and you get government that is quite different than what you were promised.''
"You come to believe it's not even worth the 10 minutes that it takes.''
An ill-fated referendum on electoral reform likely didn't encourage many voters to get to the polls, Rubenson said.
"You might believe that a referendum will drive turnout up, but those usually tend to be very partisan issues where there are organized campaigns and the parties are really campaigning for one side or the other,'' he said.
The referendum on switching to a more representative method of choosing a government was a technical issue, not an emotional one, Rubenson added.
"The parties didn't campaign on it, and the public education campaign wasn't particularly good.''
McGuinty's election strategy of saying little and keeping his head down may have helped maintain the status quo, Rubenson said.
"He just didn't say very much. It was the right strategy, because there's nothing really high stakes going on,'' he said.
"People are quite content . . . in the big picture, life is OK.''