Improving Canadian Democracy: From Theory to Practice

by Kennedy Stewart

via Kennedy Stewart.

The dominant democratic challenge of our time concerns reversing declining public participation in politics. Disappointing voter turnout levels are well documented in practically every newspaper and magazine article in which election results are discussed as well as a huge body of academic work. I focused a good deal of my university career on discovering how to improve voter turnout and, as a recently elected politician, now turn my attention to implementing these ideas.

Voter turnout is one of the most studied areas in political science with thousands of peer-reviewed papers and books dedicated to this topic over the last century. Many studies, including my own work (for example see Stewart 2006, 2007, 2008), adapt an economic approach focused on voting costs. In other words, authors theorize the easier it is for someone to vote, the more likely they are to go to the polls. These studies also suggest most voting costs are related to knowing when and how to vote as well as gathering information about candidates and issues. The more effort potential voters must themselves exert to gather this information, the less likely they are to vote. The more the state or election candidates offset information gathering costs for potential voters, the more likely it is people will head to the polls.

Recent ground-breaking work backs up these theories and points to possible practical solutions. In a statistical review of 83 academic studies, Benny Geys (2006) finds, all things being equal, voter turnout is higher in areas with stable and small populations and where elections are highly competitive and candidates spend large amounts of money. Compulsory voting, easier registration procedures, concurrent elections and proportional representation systems also increase voter participation. It is easy to envision how all these factors lower costs for potential voters and thus increase turnout.

Donald Green and Alan Gerber take this approach one step further in their landmark book Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout (2008). After using data from over 100 studies to identify how particular voter contact techniques correlate with increased voter turnout, the authors calculate the number of contacts needed to convert a non-voter into a voter as well as the cost-per-contact for each technique. Combining these findings, Green and Gerber report spending $28 on Election Day festivals, $29 on door-to-door canvassing, $38 on volunteer telephoning, $53 on unscripted commercial live calls, $67 on direct non-partisan mail, or $90 on tightly scripted commercial calls each produces one extra vote.

This work presents a special challenge for politicians concerned with increasing turnout. For example, in my riding of Burnaby-Douglas only 48,930 of the 84,911 registered voters cast ballots. At 58 per cent turnout, Burnaby-Douglas is 4 percentage points below the national average of 61 percent – meaning 2,865 more voters would have to participate for us to meet national standards. Even using the best technique of door-to-door canvassing, at $29 per extra vote I would need to spend an additional $85,000 to reach this total. While this is a daunting task, I am currently using funds from my office budget to carry out a local campaign called Neighbour-to-Neighbour which recruits local volunteers to contact their neighbours about voting in the next election with the hope that these conversations will offset voting costs and, ultimately, increase turnout in the 2015 federal election.

The best evidence suggests once someone votes the practice becomes habit forming. Similar investments in other ridings might begin to increase overall national turnout. Strategies do, however, need to pay attention to the demographics of non-voters. For example, the under-representation of younger or Native voters, a recurring problem in Canadian elections, requires special attention and very probably special tactics (LeDuc and Pammett, 2003)
Geys, Benny (2006) “Explaining voter turnout: A review of aggregate-level research” Electoral Studies 25(4): 637-663.

Green, Donald P. and Alan S. Gerber (2008) Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout (2nd Edition) Washington, DC, Brookings Institution Press.

LeDuc , Lawrence and Jon H. Pammett (2003) Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A new Survey of Non-Voters, Otttawa, Elections Canada.

Stewart, Kennedy (2006) “Designing Good Urban Governance Indicators: The Importance of Citizen Participation and Its Evaluation in Greater Vancouver” Cities 23(3): 196-204.

Stewart, Kennedy (2007) “Write the Rules and Win: Understanding Citizen Participation Game Dynamics” Public Administration Review 67(6): 1067–1076.

Stewart, Kennedy, Patricia MacIver and Stewart Young (2008) “Testing and Improving Voters’ Political Knowledge” Canadian Public Policy 34(4): 403-17.