Thursday, March 20, 2008

Byelections and Turnout

A point to begin with: we basically know very little about byelections in Canada. If you'd like to see how confused is our common wisdom about what byelections tell us you should read this post at Megapundit. We do not know definitively whether the government is systematically punished in byelections. We don't know when turnout in byelections will be higher or lower than average. And we don't know if byelection winners do better or worse than equivalent candidates in the subsequent elections. It is one of many empirical blind spots in Canadian politics. Fred Bastien and I are trying to shed some light on it in a paper in progress, but I still have no idea about the answer to these questions.

All of that said, I am rather confident that new voter ID laws have absolutely nothing to do with the apparently no turnout in Monday's four federal byelections. First, it is completely unlikely that large numbers of voters knew about these new restrictions and thus abstained from voting. Knowledge sufficient to understand the restrictions would also be sufficient to understand what forms of ID could be used in their place. So it's difficult to believe that new restrictions were anything but a post hoc explanation for some people who stayed home. Second, while there are some stories of people being turned away at the polls, there was clearly not enough of this to drive the decline. If, say, 10% of voters in a riding where refused the right to vote you can be sure you'd have news stories with more definitive sentences than "He's (Charlie Angus) also heard of at least one student being turned away in Vancouver Quadra because of the residency identification rules."

Turnout was quite low in Saskatchewan. In fact, in the 41 byelections since 1990, only five had lower turnout. Then again, turnout in the same riding was six points below the national average in 2006, despite the race being extremely close. The likely culprit of this low turnout is rather obvious, I think: first, byelections never have high turnout because of a lack of attention and interest. Second, turnout is declining everywhere, so we should expect to see it declining in byelections as well. Combined, we should expect lower turnout in byelections going forward.

The bottom line: we certainly don't know that low turnout was the result of new voter identification rules. Making hay with Elections Canada over it is probably a little off the mark.

1 comment:

Kim Dionne said...

even if voter ID restrictions didn't depress Canadian turnout, it seems to be having some effect on your southern neighbors:

The Disproportionate Impact of Indiana Voter ID Requirements on the Electorate