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Ontarians should not be surprised at low voter turnout in provincial by-elections

Changes needed to election timing, voting system, and voter rights and advertising to increase voter turnout in by-elections and general elections


Friday, September 7, 2012

OTTAWA – Today Democracy Watch called for democratic changes to Ontario's election system in response to low voter turnout in the recent provincial by-elections.  Changes to educating Ontarians about their democratic rights, election dates, and ensuring honesty in politics would have led to higher voter turnout.

“Given that only 48.2% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the last provincial election, the lowest percentage in Ontario history, and we’re looking at approximately 26% turnout for Vaughan and 47% turnout for Waterloo in these by-elections, major changes are clearly needed to counter this threat to the provincial government’s democratic legitimacy.” Said Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch.  “Unfortunately Elections Ontario and the Government of Ontario have failed to change anything so far, and Premier McGuinty chose dates for the by-elections when many people were on holiday, helping their children get ready for school, or moving for college or university, all of which likely hurt voter turnout.”

In addition to Elections Ontario properly educating voters about their right to decline the ballot (and disclosing declined ballot totals in election results), and the government changing the fixed election date to late October-early November (as with municipal elections), the provincial Election Act must also be changed to prohibit holding by-elections during the summer months and holiday periods, and at times when post-secondary students are moving, to ensure many voters are not essentially prevented from voting.

In addition, the most important changes the Ontario parties can make to increase voter turnout are as follows:

  • pass an honesty-in-politics law that gives voters an easy, low-cost way to file complaints to the Integrity Commissioner, and gives the Commissioner the power to penalize misleaders (and requires MPPs who switch parties in-between elections to resign and run in a by-election);
  • change the voting system so that the percentage of MPPs each party receives more closely matches the popular vote percentages.

These changes would give voters a reason to vote because they would know that voting for a specific party would mean a guaranteed result in terms of percentage of MPPs elected and promises kept.

In addition, if the parties strengthen provincial ethics, political finance, lobbying, open government, and whistleblower protection laws, voters will have more reason to vote because they would be more assured of good government no matter which party won.

“In addition to election dates often making it difficult for people to pay full attention to campaigns and get to the polls on election day, Canadians know from experience that they are not going to get what they vote for, and are likely to get dishonest, secretive, unethical, unrepresentative and wasteful government no matter who they vote for, and as a result no one should be surprised to see voter turnout dropping lower and lower,” said Sommers.

These problems exist in all the provinces and territories across Canada.  All of these changes should be made by the federal and provincial and territorial governments, and for their municipalities, before either mandatory or Internet voting are tried (because both of those changes will likely have serious negative effects).

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Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179  
Democracy Watch's Voter's Rights Campaign

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© 2012 Democracy Watch