Canadians participate in the political system any time they voluntarily try to influence the outcome of an election, or a government or party policy. This can be done in countless ways, from voting to campaigning for a political cause, to running for political office. Political participation is in decline in Canada, raising questions about the health of the country's democracy.

Ways of Participating

Political participation may be as simple as casting a ballot, or going further and being a candidate for political office. Political action could be trying to change the broad outlines of government policy, or it could be very specific — for example, seeking some personal benefit such a patronage appointment. Political action could even be something illegal – for example, selling political connections for money (see also Corruption and Conflict of Interest).

Paying taxes is not normally considered a political act, but refusing to do so can be. Going on strike over wages or working conditions is not strictly a form of political participation, although some strikes are more political than others, especially when they become protests about a particular policy or labour condition in society. (See also Labour Relations.)

Easy and Difficult Activities

Participation depends on the ease or difficulty of the action. During election campaigns, for example, about one in five Canadians try to persuade a friend to vote for a particular party or individual, according to Canadian Election Study surveys. But only about one in six attend a rally or meeting, or display a lawn sign or bumper sticker. Only about one in 20 Canadians canvass door-to-door, help to mail campaign literature, make campaign-related telephone calls, or act as election-day drivers or scrutineers for political parties. About the same percentage claim to have given money to a party or a candidate, or belong to a party. Fewer still run for office.

Costs and Benefits

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 require 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. Higher education levels, however, do not always result in greater participation. Whatever their education level, older citizens are more politically active than younger ones. Skills developed through non-political experiences — for example, in the bureaucracy, in churches or in voluntary associations — are often useful to political participation.

Women, who only received the vote in national elections in 1918, were traditionally less politically active than men. However, women now vote at slightly higher rates than men, and demographic trends suggest the same will become true among women for other political activities as well.

The benefits of political activity also influence participation. People are more likely to vote and engage in 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 higher rate than other citizens. Farmers, whose incomes are affected by government price and supply management decisions, are more active than other groups with similar income and education levels.

Some political actions generate social benefits for individuals. Canvassing and committee-room work 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 people are 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.

Voting Rates

How often people take part in political activities depends on the type of activity and where they live in Canada. According to Canadian Election Study surveys, about 90 per cent of Canadians eligible to vote have done so at least once.

In national elections, voter turnout has been in decline almost continuously since the mid-1960s, and dropped dramatically in the 1990s. Turnout was 61.1 per cent in the 2011 federal election, one of the lowest levels ever. Voter turnout in provincial elections is usually slightly lower, and has also been in steady decline.

Prince Edward Island tends to have the highest turnout rates in the country, in both provincial and federal elections (74 per cent in the 2011 federal election). The lowest turnout of any province tends to be in Alberta (52 per cent in 2011). Turnout is often even lower in the territories (39 per cent in Nunavut in 2011).

Declining Voter Turnout

Voter turnout in federal and provincial elections dropped precipitously in the 1990s, provoking concern about the impact on Canada's democracy. The highest federal turnout since the Second World War was in the 1958 election, when 79.4 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. The percentage rate then hovered in the mid-to-low 70s until 1997, when it fell to 67 per cent and began a series of drops to 64.1 per cent in 2000, and 60.9 per cent in 2004, according to Elections Canada. The rate was 64.7 per cent in the 2006 election but then fell to 58.8 per cent in 2008, the lowest postwar level. In 2011, turnout was 61.1 per cent.

Turnout varies across age groups and is worse among young voters, a gap that has widened since the 1990s. Only 38.8 per cent of Canadians aged 18–24 voted in 2011, compared to 75.1 per cent aged 65–74. Turnout also tends to be lower among single parents and newer immigrants (who have obtained citizenship), according to Statistics Canada.

Turnout in provincial elections has followed a similar trend. For example, in British Columbia turnout was 77.7 per cent in 1983, and 51 per cent in 2009. In Québec it was 85.3 per cent in 1976 and 57.4 per cent in 2008. In Nova Scotia it was 78.2 per cent in 1978 and 58 per cent in 2009.

Some observers argue that current participation levels are sufficient, since most of those Canadians who don't vote also care or know little about politics, and often have a weak understanding of democratic values. Others say that voting is valuable and ought to be encouraged among everyone, no matter how politically aware voters are. Some argue that participation is the best teacher of democratic values, and that those who don't participate feel a sense of exclusion or alienation from political life.

One consequence of declining turnout is that political parties need the support of a smaller slice of the population in order to win high office. In the 2011 federal election, for example, the Conservative Party won a majority government (more than half the seats in the House of Commons) with about 5.8-million votes — nearly 40 per cent of the total votes cast (14.8-million). However, more than 9-million Canadians didn't turn out to vote. If the total eligible electorate of 24.3-million is considered, the winning majority was achieved with the support of fewer than 25 per cent of all eligible voters. Although perfectly constitutional, this phenomenon raises questions about the legitimacy of Canada's democracy, and the governments elected by it.

How to Encourage Turnout

Attempts to increase participation should focus on increasing the benefits or reducing the costs of political action, or on increasing the rate of personal contact between parties and voters. On the benefit side, the sense that individual votes mean little in constituencies dominated heavily by one party could be averted by a shift to an electoral formula of proportional representation (in which parties are awarded parliamentary seats based on their total vote percentage). Proportional representation — or some combination of it with the current first-past-the-post electoral system — might encourage greater turnout. (See also Electoral Reform.)

On the cost side, easy access to advance polls and to special ballots may increase turnout, but the evidence of this is scant. Scheduling elections on weekends would probably help. Increasing tax credits for contributors to parties or candidates could also boost political participation, if not actual voter turnout.

Surveys show that citizens are more likely to vote when they are asked to, particularly if they are contacted face-to-face, and especially if they are offered a ride to the polling station or reminded where their polling station is located.

Role of Political Parties

The principal agents for encouraging and facilitating political participation must be political parties themselves — for example, by more active recruitment of volunteers. According to survey evidence, many more citizens are willing to work in campaigns than are asked. To the extent that parties have substituted investment in television advertising, online outreach and digital messaging for the labour of actual volunteers, they have contributed to turnout decline. The renewed interest in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) strategies — which entail everything from telephoning known party supporters, to providing transport to polling stations — may help, although they may also lead to even more focus on parties' narrowly-defined electoral bases.