What Will Low Voter Turnout Do in the Alberta Election?

By Harold Jansen on Feb 28, 2008

I've been enjoying reading the comments of my University of Lethbridge colleague Professor Peter McCormick over on his blog at the Calgary Herald/Edmonton Journal Alberta Votes website. In his latest post, he talks about what a dull campaign it's been. There's no question about it. No party or leader has captured the voters' imagination. I think the likely result is another low turnout election. In 2004, only 44% of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot (and remember that our system of voter registration is far from perfect,so the actual turnout number is a bit lower than that). With polls showing a large undecided vote and decided voters not particularly excited about their choices, we have all the makings of a new record low, surpassing that 2004 mark.

The big question is: what effect will this have? My esteemed colleague writes: "The conventional wisdom is that low turn-out favors the incumbents," meaning the Conservatives will be the benficiaries. I'm not so sure. It's also been widely believed that in Alberta, Conservative voters who don't like what their government does express their discontent not by voting for someone else, but by staying home on election day. The opposition breakthroughs in 1986/1989 came along with a drop in turnout. There were opposition candidates who won their seats in 1986 with fewer votes than they had in 1982 when they lost those same seats. Why? Tories stayed home. Or at least we think so.

To truly settle this question, we'd need a detailed survey of voters and non-voters after the election. Lacking that evidence, we have to look at it another way. That's what my I did with my colleagues Edward Bell and Lisa Young in an article published recently in the Canadian Political Science Review. We found that in the 2004 election the Conservatives did worse in disticts where turnout was lower and the Liberals did better. Turnout had very little impact on the vote shares of either the NDP or the Alberta Alliance. Now, we have to be careful in interpreting the data in order not to commit an ecological fallacy. We can't make conclusions about the behaviour of individual voters based on these district level data. However, our findings are at least consistent with the interpretation that Conservative voters stay home. Or at least they did in 2004. That's another caveat: what happened in the past may not apply to this election.

But Professor McCormick is absolutely right: the turnout question will be a big one on election night. Besides being reflective of the democratic vibrancy of the province, it could affect the very results of the election.

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