The frequency of political participation depends on several factors. About 90% of Canadians eligible to vote have done so at least once. In national ELECTIONS, turnout is typically just over 75% of those registered. Although considerably higher than in the US, Canada's turnout is in the bottom third for established democracies, about 5% below the average for countries where voting is not compulsory. Turnout in provincial elections is usually slightly lower, although the opposite is true in Québec and some other provinces (see ELECTORAL BEHAVIOUR). Municipal turnout is usually the lowest of all.
Participation falls off sharply for more difficult activities during POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS. According to sample surveys, about one person in 5 tries to persuade a friend to vote for a particular party or individual, and about one in 6 attends a rally or meeting, or displays a lawn sign or bumper sticker. Between 5% and 10% of the population canvass, help to mail campaign literature, make campaign-related telephone calls, or act as election-day drivers or scrutineers. Fewer than one in 20 give money to a party or a candidate (see PARTY FINANCING) or belong to a party. Fewer still run for office or engage in illegal political activities.
One major consideration is the cost of political participation. Some political acts cost money and are most likely to be engaged in by those with money to spare. Other acts place a premium on free time. Many political acts require social and bureaucratic skills, a mastery of language and an ability to process information, and are therefore powerfully influenced by levels of education. Other differences in political involvement, such as those between occupation or income groups, partly reflect such differences in levels of education, although these differences can be offset by experience. For example, whatever their education, older citizens are more active than younger ones. Skills developed through nonpolitical experiences, eg, in the BUREAUCRACY, in churches or in voluntary associations, are often useful to political participation.
An historically important role has been played by democratically managed rural co-operatives; members acquire skills that are transferable to politics, and this involvement raises rural participation to levels above those for comparable urban groups. Women, who were enfranchised for national elections in 1918 and who have traditionally been excluded from those social roles that encourage political learning, have traditionally been politically less active than men. Women now vote at higher rates than men, however, and demographic trends suggest that the same will become true for other political activities as well.
The benefits of political activity are as important a determinant of its frequency as are the costs. For example, people are more likely to vote and engage in other campaign activities when a race is close than when it is one-sided. Some occupation groups are more affected by government decisions than others and so are more likely to act politically whatever the cost of the act. PUBLIC SERVICE employees, whose incomes depend on political decisions, vote at a significantly higher rate than other citizens. Farmers, whose incomes are greatly affected by government price and supply management decisions, are much more active than other groups with similar income and education levels and with similar histories of organizational involvement.
Levels of political activity vary greatly across provinces, partly reflecting the competitiveness of the PARTY SYSTEM. Typically, Alberta and Newfoundland, with one-sided federal elections, have the lowest electoral turnouts in Canada, while Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan have the highest turnouts. In Québec, participation was usually greater in the highly competitive provincial elections than in federal ones, which before 1984 were typically one-sided. Since 1984, however, federal turnout in Québec has exceeded the national average.
Some political actions generate social benefits for the individual, regardless of their effects on policy or on the outcome of an election. Canvassing and committee-room work, because they provide opportunities to meet people, are popular among those who particularly enjoy the company of others. Donating money requires few social skills; displaying a lawn sign or bumper sticker requires neither money nor highly developed social skills, but does require sufficient commitment to a party or a candidate to withstand possible criticism from neighbours. Survey evidence suggests that the overlap between different kinds of action is weak. A person is more likely to engage in the same action in both provincial and federal elections than to engage in more than one action within either type of election.
Some observers argue that the present participation level of Canadians is sufficient, as survey evidence suggests that low-level participants care and know little about politics and often have a weak grip on democratic values. Other observers argue that participation is valuable in itself and ought to be encouraged, and that participation is the best teacher of democratic values; the relatively weak democratic commitment of those who do not participate is largely a consequence of their exclusion from political life, even if that exclusion is self-willed.
Any attempt to increase participation should either increase the benefits or reduce the costs of political action. Increased benefits might include changes in electoral law or in tax rules. The ineffectiveness of individual votes and campaign efforts in one-sided constituencies could be averted by a shift to an electoral formula of proportional representation, although other, undesirable consequences might result. Allowing tax credits for contributors to parties or candidates can transform a cost of participation into a benefit, which is precisely what has occurred in national elections and in many provinces in recent years. Individuals now contribute more money to Canadian parties than ever before.
Easy access to advance polls and to special ballots seems to help turnout, as would scheduling elections on rest days, Sunday for example. Increases in education levels, however, have not produced corresponding increases in participation, in spite of the positive association at any time between educational attainment and participation.
The principal agents for reducing the cost of participation in campaigns must be political parties themselves, eg, by more active recruitment of volunteers. According to survey evidence, many more citizens are willing to work in campaigns than are asked. But the increased importance of electronic mass media in campaigns indicates that parties are substituting capital for labour rather than the reverse. Legislation to restrict party access to media might force the parties to seek voluntary assistance but might also infringe upon other political freedoms. Perhaps the most effective means of encouraging participation in campaigns and other political arenas lies in creating opportunities for participation in activities that are not commonly regarded as political, in the democratization of everyday life.
Author RICHARD JOHNSTON
Links to Other Sites
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Centre for Constitutional Studies
The official site of the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta. The Centre was founded to encourage and facilitate the interdisciplinary study of constitutional matters both nationally and internationally.
First Women in Provincial and Territorial Legislatures
See biographies and related resources about distinguished women political pioneers in Canada. Produced in recognition of Women's History Month. From Library and Archives Canada.
Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
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