According to Elections Canada, turnout at the advance polls last weekend was up 34.5% from 2008. We shall see if this record high will translate into higher voter participation in tomorrowâ€™s election. If it does, it would run counter to a long-term downtrend. Since the 1988 election, when free trade with the US was the issue of the day, the proportion of eligible voters showing up at the polls has declined from 75.3% to 58.8% in 2008.
Over the past decade, this trend has given rise to a lot of handwringing about the health of our democracy. Some observers have even gone so far as to propose that voting be made mandatory. Needless to say, such a law would contravene our individual freedom. Yet it also presumes wrongly that less than 100% turnout is necessarily bad.
Not everyone pays close attention to public affairs. The idea that people should do so reflects the ancient Greek-Roman conception (restated in our time by Hannah Arendt) of politics as an individually ennobling activity. This classical republican claim is far from self-evident. Nor is everyone willing to invest the time studying the issues to make an informed vote. To the extent such people decide not to take part in the electoral process, the more likely it becomes that the polling results will truly reflect the wisdom that can, under the right conditions, be elicited from crowds.
More importantly, the act of not voting can be a political statement in itself. It can be a way of signalling oneâ€™s alienation from government, of expressing one’s skepticism of the capacity of politics to solve all our problems. Â As such, the declining trend in voter participation can plausibly be read as an indicator that people are increasingly, if not always consciously, seeing through the conceit that the state is the primary instrument of human salvation.