The Abstentionist Vote
In this election, as of figures from Elections Canada updated at 2:25 pm September 22, between 59.52 and 62 per cent of registered voters cast ballots (taking into account the estimates of mail-in ballots). Of the 27,366,297 registered electors, about 38 to 40.5 per cent — between 10.4 and 11.1 million — did not vote.
After the 2019 election, Elections Canada reported that 90 per cent of absentee voters gave “reasons related to everyday life” and “reasons of a political nature” as answers to why they did not vote.
André Blais, who holds the Research Chair in Electoral Studies at the University of Montreal, says voter turnout has declined by around 10 per cent “in most democracies” since the 1980s. “Fifty years ago there were more people thinking in terms of voting as a duty. Now people are thinking more in terms of rights,” he said.
He added that a few countries have imposed compulsory voting to reverse the trend, notably Australia. “It’s obvious that it works, but like any remedy, it has its drawbacks,” he notes. “Those who are compelled to vote can vote quite randomly. And it hasn’t increased interest in politics,” he said. As an example, one non-voter said of the party leaders, “They all look alike. They all do their best with small differences. That makes me lose interest.”
Francis Dupuis-Déri, professor of political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal and author of Nous n’irons plus aux urnes – plaidoyer pour l’abstention (Vote No More — A Plea for Abstention) believes that the refusal to vote can hide a more pronounced politicization. “The community that holds the world record for abstention, according to my research, is the Mohawk of the Montreal region. They have abstention rates of up to 98 per cent.
“It is the same with the Maori in [New Zealand] or with Indigenous communities in the United States. We do not vote because we are in a colonial system, and we do not want to vote for the colonial power. It doesn’t represent us.”
We must not confuse abstention and indifference, he says. “People who do not vote are criticized a lot by saying that they are apolitical or that they do not think, but on the side of the people who vote, there are also some who do not think so much. They can vote for the same party, from family to family.”
Many thus fulfill their political duties “within social movements,” without exercising their right to vote, argues Dupuis-Déri, himself an abstentionist. He notes that at the end of the day, the lack of legitimacy caused by the abstention rate does not change much in the way the country is run.
“I have never managed to see any concrete impact on the government’s ability to govern, to impose its laws, to wage wars, to appoint ministers, to accept bribes. They have exactly the same power whether they have five per cent, 20 per cent or 40 per cent abstention.”
André Blais believes for his part that “if we fell below 50 per cent [electoral participation], we would ask enormous questions” about the legitimacy of the party in power.
In fact, this is already the case.
(Facts and quotations from Le Devoir, September 20 and translated from original French by Renewal Update.)