Democracy and the power of voting

October 21, 2010

The last federal election holds the dubious distinction of hitting a new low for Canada: Only 58.8% of the population voted.

The result was another minority government, entrenching the country in a political stalemate.

For Canadians turned off by governments they don’t like, they might want to consider the lesson history teaches us: When large numbers of Canadians vote, we make a difference.

When John Diefenbaker was vying to break out of his Conservative minority government logjam 50 years ago, he did it by getting 79.4% of Canadians to vote.

That remains Canada’s highest voter turnout ever and it granted Diefenbaker the largest majority government the country had yet seen.

Fifty years later, with a similar opportunity to crown a minority government with a majority win, a disappointingly large swath of Canadians turned their nose up at the chance.

In 2008, with a world recession knocking on our door, four out of 10 Canadians didn’t even bother to vote.

That’s down from what’s considered normal. Historically about 75 per cent of Canadians have gone out to vote in federal elections.

In 1867, the year of Confederation, 73.1% of Canadians voted.

In 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, 74.2% of Canadians voted.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, 75.3% of Canadians voted. It was, after all, a war fought on the basis of protecting democracy.

Large numbers of Canadians – 75.7% -- turned out to vote in the 1968 Trudeaumania federal election.

Similarly, 75.3% of Canadians voted in 1988, the year of the free trade debate.

But by 2008, with the prospect of a worldwide recession crossing into our borders, voter turnout dropped to 58.8%.

There is much room for improvement. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents took seriously their right to vote, and they exercised it.

Perhaps it will be women who heed the call and turn out in record numbers in the next election. Perhaps it will be men, or young Canadians worried about the country they will inherit, or baby boomers wanting to leave a legacy for their kids.

Hopefully it will be all of the above. Democracy, after all, literally means power for the people.