Ontarians: voting with their butts for Nobody

Get ready for the Voter Turnout Nerds: you’ll be hearing from them today

Get ready for the Voter Turnout Nerds: you’ll be hearing from them today. Oh yes. It would not be like them to stay silent after an Ontario election in which fewer than half of technically eligible voters appear to have cast a ballot. The Turnout Nerds don’t care who won or who lost: they care about the mathematical purity of the electoral exercise. They’ll be everywhere you look in the media, ready with their diagnoses and their nostrums and, most of all, their disapproval.

It’s not the people who have let us down, they’ll tell us; it’s the government that has let the people down, fostering apathy (most heinous of all political sins) by failing to implement Brilliant Idea X or Salutary Scheme Y. But at what point do the people, apparently so deaf to the allure of electoral reforms and renovations, stop believing the Turnout Nerd’s comforting assurances of goodwill? Nothing seems to raise the holy quantity of Turnout very effectively. Any momentary rise seems to be followed by a more precipitate plunge. Are the electorate and the Turnout Nerds headed toward a frightful mutual collision with terrible truths about democracy?

Seven provinces, including Ontario, have adopted fixed election dates, partly as a response to the Turnout Problem. When the Harper government introduced fixed dates in 2006—we all remember how well that turned out, don’t we?—this was one of the stated goals: “One objective of setting fixed election dates is maximizing voter turnout.” Dozens of experts and quasi-experts made this argument, and we now have data from enough fixed-date elections to venture a conclusion on this noble experiment:

 Prov    Elxn           Change in Turnout
 BC      May 17 2005    +2.8%
 PE      May 28 2007    +0.5%
 NL      Oct 9 2007     -9.5%
 ON      Oct 10 2007    -4.1%
 BC      May 12 2009    -7.2%
 NB      Sept 27 2010   +4.0%
 PE      Oct 3 2011     -7.4%
 MB      Oct 4 2011     +0.7%
 ON      Oct 6 2011     -5.2%*
 NL      Oct 11 2011    ?
 SK      Nov 7 2011     ?
 *early estimate

[Points thumb downward, blows raspberry]

As provinces scrambled pell-mell to adopt fixed election dates, a few sociologists and political scientists pointed out that our municipal governments already have them—and that turnouts in Canadian municipal elections, possibly as a consequence, are feeble. Fixed election dates are also a characteristic of American electoral systems, as are pathetic turnouts at every level.

And what else do Canadian municipal elections and U.S. federal and state elections have in common? Huge incumbency advantages. Fixed dates are supposed to relieve a crucial advantage of incumbents in traditional Canadian elections, yet it’s the damnedest thing—if my math is right, incumbents won seven of the nine fixed-date elections in that table, and are extremely likely to be 9-for-11 a month from now. (I wouldn’t recommend establishing any crazy expectations about increased turnout in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, either.)

Did we make a boo-boo? Did our democracy slip on a banana peel? Turnout Nerds sought fixed-date elections in the name of their obsession with voting as a simplistic moral imperative: it is starting to appear not only as if they failed on their own terms, but that their tonic for democracy may have had unanticipated, or at least undisclosed, side-effects. The Nerds’ next crusade will probably be for electronic voting, and if you think citizens are cynical about electoral politics now, wait until the apparatus falls into the hands of the people who gave the world golden hits like PC LOAD LETTER and PAGE_FAULT_IN_NONPAGED_AREA.

It is not that the Turnout Nerds have some vast constituency of voters who share their concern. Voter turnout is the kind of imaginary issue that spurs people to parrot pieties to pollsters, but the turnout itself is a perfect revealed-preference measure of how much people actually care. Aside from a few unfortunates who slip and fall or get hit by buses on their way to the polls, there can be almost no such thing as a person who is really concerned about turnout, but who stays home on Election Day. We all have near-total control over whether we turn out or not. The cost of going to the polls is pretty much zero. So the issue, if there is an issue, must be that a lot of people think that voting isn’t even worth the zero—that they personally accomplish nothing or less than nothing by voting: not even the reinforcement of a useful social norm or the cultivation of a private sense of satisfaction. Some of them are surely right about this.

The true place of the Turnout Nerd in the media ecosystem is to fill space—to give us something to talk and worry and argue about in the absence of authentic information about what stirrings and yearnings lie behind the raw vote totals. But the Nerd, with his worrywart ways focused on one principle of political health, may be having the same destructive effects on our political life as any other fundamentalist or monomaniac. These people are the orthorexics of politics. Ask Kenneth Arrow: the creation of a political system is always a balancing act between virtues, a compromise, a kludge. Greater political “engagement” and “involvement” are vague virtues at best; and more “excitement” is, if you ask me, an indubitable positive vice.

So can we start politely ignoring the Turnout Nerd? Heck, I won’t even insist on the “politely” part.