Nearly half of Saskatchewan voters didn’t participate in 2016 provincial election
by Dr. Michael Boda
February 1, 2017
This past week, Elections Saskatchewan released the Statement of Votes, the first of four volumes that assesses the provincial election held on April 4, 2016. While historically of little interest to citizens beyond candidates, those working in our political parties, and political scientists, the report draws attention to a problem of real concern for a much broader audience. It shows nearly half of Saskatchewan's eligible voters have not been participating in our recent provincial elections—a situation that undermines the strong democratic tradition by which we select those who govern our province.
Before the last provincial election, advance polling had been limited to only those who could offer a specific reason for not voting on Election Day. In 2016, all Saskatchewan voters were given the opportunity to vote in advance of Election Day for the first time. Voters showed up in record numbers at 173 locations across the province. There was an astonishing 66 percent increase over the 2011 provincial election figures for those choosing to vote in this way, with ultimately 25 percent of all votes being cast at advance polls.
Given this change, expectations might have been for a significant overall increase in turnout at the polls, but this simply wasn't the case. The number of eligible voters casting a ballot was just 53.5 percent, an increase of only about 2.5 percent over 2011 despite dramatically improved rates of voter registration.
In comparison, the participation of eligible voters in 1982 was nearly 80 percent. A relative freefall was observed in 1995, with the turnout number dropping to just over 57 percent. And since then, the overall participation rate has continued to decline. For more than two decades now, just over half of Saskatchewan's eligible voters have been choosing who will make decisions on their behalf.
Without accounting for a similar trend and even lower participation in our municipal elections, the lessons drawn from the current provincial figures should be disturbing to our citizenry. The numbers show a province increasingly taking for granted one of our country's most precious commodities--democratic elections and the process by which we select those who lead our province. When compared against jurisdictions around the world, Saskatchewan has been a beacon of success in the realm of democratic governance since its founding in 1905. I know this from firsthand experience, having grown up in our province and then worked in developing and other established democracies around the globe for over two decades.
The statistical 'snapshot' of the 28th Provincial Election found in the Statement of Votes should offer everyone in Saskatchewan cause for thought. Elections Saskatchewan needs to do its part, being thorough and intentional about how, within the legislation that guides it, administrative barriers to voting for eligible voters can be minimized. But turnout rates in a democracy cannot be an election management body's concern alone.
We all have to take responsibility for this problem. Electoral stakeholders—among them our province’s opinion leaders, registered political parties, civil society organizations, the private sector, and educators, to name just a few—all have an important role to play. Serious questions need to be asked with respect to why Saskatchewan’s participation rates are so low, who votes and who does not, and what the impact will be if turnout rates decline below a simple majority of the eligible electorate.
Michael Boda has been Chief Electoral Officer in Saskatchewan since 2012.