Low voter turnout no reason to change Ontario’s electoral system

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Appeared in the Toronto Star, June 25, 2022
Low voter turnout no reason to change Ontario’s electoral system

Voter turnout in the recent Ontario election was the lowest in the province’s history, which has once again prompted calls for electoral reform.

There are two ways to assess low voter turnout. Proponents of electoral reform view it as democratic frustration—that the lack of choice results in people staying home. Alternatively, it could be said that voters are satisfied with the government and don’t have a burning desire for change.

Given the variation in voter turnout over the years, it’s not self-evident that the electoral system itself suppresses the vote. In Ontario, the highest voter turnout in a generation was in 1971 with 74 per cent. Since then, turnout has swung widely from election to election going as high as 68 per cent in 1975 to as low 48 per cent in 2011. The 2022 turnout is not unusual for a “non-change” election.

Moreover, electoral systems remain one of many variables that influence voter turnout. Other factors include the age of the voting population, enthusiasm for change and political culture. It’s not clear how changing the electoral system will influence these factors.

Currently, Ontario uses the plurality “first-past-the-post” electoral system where the candidate with the most votes wins. In advocating for reform, Fair Vote Canada argues that “majority governments should have the consent of a majority of voters.” (In the recent election, the PCs won a majority with 40.8 per cent of the vote.) But the fallacy of electoral reform is that it can provide a true majority opinion. Ranked ballots, a reform option, have voters choose several candidates on a list, often resulting in one’s second or third choice being victorious.

In proportional representation (PR) systems, also favoured by some reformers, the proportion of total votes are translated into seats, which gives areas with high population densities more say in the outcome of elections, further marginalizing rural and remote voters. Incidentally, the Liberals and NDP did better this election in inner city ridings such as Toronto, Hamilton, Kingston and Ottawa than in less-populated areas. In contrast, the PCs were competitive throughout the province. The share of the vote varied across ridings and indeed many candidates won with majorities—34 ridings were won with more than 50 per cent (26 PC, 7 NDP, 1 Green).

PR systems also give political parties the wrong incentives by essentially creating more effective parties (the ability to translate votes into seats) than majority or plurality systems. The reason is simple; there’s no need to compromise before the vote to include differing points of view within the party. Consequently, these systems often feature more extreme parties. And when parties don’t have to foster compromise within their own ranks, we see more minority parliaments, which result in backroom deals after the election. Essentially, voters are bypassed in the process of forming government.

In light of these realities, rather than blame the electoral system for the decline in the vote, perhaps we should look first at the how well the parties stimulate interest. Our system relies on parties to mobilize voter turnout.

In the last two elections, the PCs won because they were able to motivate more people to vote for them than the other parties. But the raw vote numbers indicate that apart from the Greens, all the major political parties failed to get new people to vote for them. The Tories lost more than 400,000 voters. The biggest decline was the NDP who lost more than 800,000 voters from the previous election. The Liberals managed to pick up a seat but still lost 7,000 voters from 2018.

This suggests the parties did not convince people to switch, and they couldn’t motivate those who supported them in the past to do so again. The fact that both the NDP and Liberal leaders resigned on election night indicates they too acknowledge their failure to connect.

Nor should these results give Doug Ford and the PCs much comfort. They too lost electors from 2018, and if the Opposition parties simply woo back their supporters, that alone could result in a different government in four years without the bother of having to change the electoral system.

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