When Manitobans went to the polls last October, only 57.7 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, marking one of the lowest participation rates in the province’s history. Despite coming out a winner in that election, Premier Greg Selinger expressed disappointment in the turnout, saying any rate below 60 per cent is just unacceptable.
When Ontarians went to the polls two days later, they set the bar even lower. For the first time in the province’s history, turnout dropped below half, coming in at 49.2 per cent. Five days later, voters in Newfoundland and Labrador took their turn at the polls and they, too, set a record low for turnout in a provincial election: 58 per cent.
There has been much hand-wringing and tut-tutting among journalists and political observers in each of those provinces ever since. By contrast, though, democracy enthusiasts in Alberta would likely be thrilled to see those types of numbers come back after voters go to the polls here on April 23.
Voter turnout in Alberta elections has, historically, lagged far behind every other province in Canada. Ontarians may have been aghast to see turnout there dip below 50 per cent for the first time ever last fall, but we crossed that threshold back in 1986, when barely 47 per cent of eligible Albertans bothered to cast ballots.
In recent years, the 40-per-cent mark has become more of a realistic target for turnout in Alberta elections. Province-wide, voters barely cleared that hurdle in the 2008 election, with 40.6 per cent casting ballots. Residents of the West Yellowhead constituency came in just under that mark, with a turnout of 37.8 per cent. When it came to Jasper polls, specifically, the turnout was a bit higher but still below the provincial average, coming in at 39.3 per cent.
But it gets worse.
Out of the 83 constituencies in the previous provincial election, 13 saw voter turnouts below one-third. The lowest of those was Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, where only 21.5 per cent of eligible voters actually voted. By contrast, only four constituencies had turnouts above half. The high mark was set by Edmonton-Riverview at 52.5 per cent.
Many Albertans might not be particularly concerned by any of this, as they have become accustomed to numbers like these. But it’s important to note that if turnout rates ever dropped to these kinds of levels elsewhere in Canada, the response would not be one of casual dismissal. There would be some serious soul-searching going on.
Consider Prince Edward Island, which also went through a provincial election last October and also recorded one of its lowest voter turnouts in decades: 77 per cent. After all the ballots had been counted, many on the island were left wondering what had happened to the state of their democracy. This is a province where turnouts above 80 per cent are standard and it’s not uncommon to see the rate edge closer to 90 per cent in some provincial elections.
An editorial in the Charlottetown Guardian noted that the 2011 election results had “sent pundits scrambling to find out why the electorate is becoming so apathetic” and suggested there may be “cause for alarm.” The newspaper blamed negative campaigning, in large part, for the sharp drop in voter participation and scolded P.E.I.’s provincial parties for turning voters off with their approach to politics.
“It’s time they realize that trying to win at all costs does have consequences and the loser is our democratic process,” the newspaper opined.
What, then, do the turnout rates here say about the state of the democratic process in Alberta?
While it’s unrealistic to expect anything close to P.E.I.’s level of participation, it would be encouraging to at least see participation in the upcoming election move in a positive direction. By contrast, another decline in turnout would be deeply troubling, indeed.
If dropping below 80 per cent is “cause for alarm” elsewhere, surely sliding below 40 per cent should sound some sirens here.