Bill would end Elections Canada vote drives
Among the controversial proposals in the Conservative government's proposed Fair Elections Act is one to eliminate Elections Canada campaigns encouraging Canadians to vote - no matter who for.
Pierre Poilievre, federal minister of state for democratic reform, says Elections Canada's out reach campaigns - which began in 2003 in response to decades of declining voter turnout, particularly among young voters - have failed to combat the troubling trend.
"I am not arguing that Elections Canada's advertising drives turnout down," Poilievre said in an email to Postmedia News on Wednesday. "Rather, it fails to drive turnout up, because it does not address the practical obstacles that prevent many from voting."
Jon Pammett, a political science professor at Carleton University, said Poilievre's equation reflects a flawed understanding of cause and effect.
"There's a name for this in statistics," Pammett said. "All this is based on simply a correlation."
True, voter turnout in Canada has failed to rebound significantly in the last 10 years. After falling sharply in the 1990s - from 71 per cent to 61 per cent - it hit an all-time low of 58.8 per cent in 2008 before recovering in 2011 to 61 per cent. But in the relationship between voter outreach and voter turnout, Pammett cautions that A plus B does not always equal C. "You simply don't know from simple observation of two things. It's quite possible that the decline would have been even greater if the campaigns weren't working."
Pammett notes that there hasn't been much research into the impact of Elections Canada's efforts to inspire youth to vote - from TV ads during some elections to school-based initiatives such as a mock election program. U.S. evidence, however, has shown that non-partisan campaigns do make a difference in getting people to vote, particularly among the young.
Celebrity-laced TV ads from the youth-oriented campaign Rock The Vote made a measurable impact during the 2004 presidential election, said Columbia University political scientist Donald P. Green, who suggested Poilievre could use a "remedial course in statistics."
"It's one thing to say governments should have no business encouraging voter turnout. ... But to say that such efforts do not work is demonstrably false."
Green, co-author of the 2008 book Get Out The Vote, said hundreds of randomized studies in the United States have identified best practices to engage voters.
Old-fashioned door-knocking by party volunteers has the biggest effect, he said, noting that campaigns by both the Democrats and the Republicans are credited with a more than five-point jump in voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election.
That echoes Poilievre's argument that by limiting Elections Canada to providing the bare bones basics of when, where and how to vote, "It will be left to aspiring candidates and parties to give people something for which to vote, and to reach out to citizens where they are."
But Green said Canada's campaign finance restrictions make it unlikely that political parties here would be able to carry out voter outreach campaigns on the scale seen in the United States, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Elections Canada spokeswoman Diane Benson said it's unclear from the bill whether the agency would still be able to visit schools to promote voting or to partner with youth voter organizations such as Apathy Is Boring.
Asked if those programs would be affected, Poilievre's spokeswoman Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey responded: "The job of an election agency is to inform citizens of the basics of voting: where, when and what ID to bring."
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