Be it the result of pandemic fatigue, voter apathy and/or the failure of opposition party leaders to capture the attention of Ontario residents, the low voter turnout in Thursday’s provincial election is “really quite shameful,” believes Tim Mau, an associate professor of political science at the University of Guelph.
In Guelph, Thursday’s election saw voter turnout of 48.76 per cent, which is stronger than the provincial average. There were 112,115 eligible voters in the riding, with 54,667 votes cast. In the 2018 provincial election voter turnout in Guelph was 61.12 per cent.
Province-wide, 43 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, down from 56.7 per cent in 2018 and falling below the previous record low of 48.2 per cent in 2011.
“We continue to reach new lows in terms of voter apathy and voter turnout,” said Mau. “There’s lots of reasons why people don’t vote, but at the end of the day it’s a basic and fundamental indicator of the vitality of your democracy.”
Mau has several theories about why the turnout was so low, several of which are tied to pandemic-related issues. It could be that people simply are too worn down to want to participate, or they’re fed up with the “inequities” of the first-past-the-post system, which saw the Progressive Conservatives returned to government status with less than half the popular vote.
“There probably is a fairly strong group of people who are disappointed with the fact we haven’t made any progress with changing the electoral system,” he said. “(Premier Doug) Ford had just under 41 per cent of the popular vote but gets an overwhelming majority of the seats.
“There is that massive electoral skew that tends to happen.”
Voter turnout tends to be higher when there is an appetite for change, Mau continued.
“(Premier Doug) Ford, like all political leaders, was working in very difficult circumstances,” Mau said of the pandemic’s progression and impact. “There just wasn’t enough people displeased with his performance.
“Rightly or wrongly, Ford convinced enough people that he was best positioned to continue to lead the province of Ontario.”
NDP leader Andrea Horwath hasn’t resonated with the electorate, the professor believes, while Liberal leader Steven Del Duca “simply had no profile, no presence whatsoever.”
“They didn’t present a strong alternative,” said Mau. “When you’re talking about politics, it’s easier to vote a party out of power if you think there’s a strong, viable alternative.”
Both Horwath and Del Duca announced their resignation as party leader following their election night performance.
“It’s always tough to get people to come out to the polls in summer,” Mau added.
Asked about the low voter turnout following his victory address, Guelph MPP re-elect Mike Schreiner put the blame squarely on the effect of COVID-19.
“This election is a unique one because we’re still in a pandemic. We’ve just been through two very challenging years,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of fatigue out there. I think a lot of people are just wanting to get pre-pandemic life back, to some extent.”
“I’m surprised it maybe wasn’t a little stronger,” Mau said of local participation at the ballot box. “I think Guelph has a pretty politically active and motivated group of residents.
“I thought there would have been a much stronger turnout here in Guelph to help propel (Schreiner) back to victory.”
No matter what the reason, Mau said part of the response to low voter turnout needs to be focused on groups that don’t typically participate as much in the process, such as youth, people with lower incomes and recent immigrants.
“It’s important they are a part of the political process and they do feel their voices count in matter,” he said. “We need to find ways to engage those demographic groups.”