Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Proportional voting systems and voter turnout

One often-cited argument in favour of introducing some element of proportional representation into the Canadian electoral system is that it would raise the voter turnout. The case goes like this: If you average the turnout percentages for countries that have proportional electoral systems and compare that number with the average percentage in those countries that have our current system of first-past-the-post, the turnout is significantly higher in countries with proportional voting systems. This means that people are more likely to vote when they know their vote will count, and if we switched to a PR-based system, our turnout would go up, too.

This difference between FPTP countries and PR countries is real. The problem, though, is that it could be attributed to any number of factors, only some of which have to do with differing voting systems. For example, many of the small group of countries in the world that use first-past-the-post (e.g. Canada, the UK, the U.S.) have certain historical, cultural, and linguistic commonalities, any combination of which could be playing a role. And in New Zealand, which switched from our first-past-the-post system to a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in 1993, the evidence even suggests that while voter turnout initially rose in response to the switch, it dipped back down to its previous levels once voters had gotten used to the new system.

This is why you won't find any strong statements about voter turnout in the things I've written in support of electoral reform, including my proportional representation FAQ and my post summarizing the six best reasons to support proportional representation in Canada. Simply put, the evidence suggesting that voter turnout would go up if Canada switched to a proportional electoral system is inconclusive at best, and I would rather not dilute all the solid arguments in favour of electoral reform with one weaker one.

Take heart, though, members of the current Yes to MMP campaign in Ontario. The loss of just one of the potential arguments you could make doesn't even make a dent in the long list of reasons why Ontario's proposed Mixed-Member Proportional system would be an improvement over first-past-the-post. And it doesn't change the fact that your arguments are far more grounded in research...and in reality...than the 'no' campaign's fearmongering is on a good day.


Dr.Dawg said...

Actually, while I've occasionally seen this argument made, I don't make it, and neither does Fair Vote Canada, for precisely the reasons you've set out.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, that's one more reason why I have so much respect for Fair Vote Canada. I've never known any non-academic organization to argue so much from research findings rather than trying to play on raw emotion.

Mark Greenan said...

Good to see you back. I'm officially asking you, you've gotta join Bloggers for MMP.

And you're so right about Fair Vote and their grounding in evidence based research. I only with it were teh same with opponents of reform.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Actually, I was asked by someone else a few weeks back, but I didn't respond because I was in the middle of a bunch of deadline-chasing. Can you remind me of how I join? (And does it really help to have someone all the way out here in Alberta?)

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

Someone's probably already mentioned this to you, but you can join Bloggers for MMP here.

It can't hurt to have another on board, including someone from Alberta. There is a separate list for blogs from outside Ontario, of which there are currently 5!

You might also consider putting a "Vote for MMP" logo on your site (you can get it from I'm sure a lot of your readers are from Ontario, so that couldn't hurt!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Done! Thanks for the details.

Anonymous said...

While voter turnout is not my specialty, I believe that the consensus of the various studies based on multiple regression (therefore taking into account those "any number of factors") do show that PR is associated with greater turnout.

But the main argument for why is something that can vary within as well as across electoral-system types: The perceived efficacy of the vote. That is, whether voters feel it makes a difference if they vote.

In the NZ case, turnout fell back after 1996 presumably because in 1999 and 2002 there was not much chance of a government not being formed by Labour. What happened in 2005, with a very close election and lots of coalition possibilities? It went up, of course--by about 5 percentages points.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Thanks for the detailed corrections! And please feel free to jump in with stuff like that anytime.