Voter turnout: What we don’t know, and what we never will

Politics & Opinion

/ The consequences of not prioritizing knowing. /

If you’ve read the news in any regular way over the past couple of weeks, you’ll recognize the figure 37% as the voter turnout in the latest municipal election for the Halifax Regional Municipality. And indeed, that’s the official number (well, 36.93% if you want to get picky).

But this number is definitely, absolutely wrong. Well, it’s definitely inaccurate, anyway, if that’s an important distinction. That is to say …

We don’t know the real voter turnout

The 37% voter turnout number that we’re so familiar with represents the number of votes cast divided by the number of eligible voters in the municipality. Note that the denominator is eligible voters, and not registered voters. An eligible voter, according to the HRM elections website, is this:

  • You are at least 18 years old on Election Day October 20, 2012
  • You are a Canadian citizen
  • You have been resident in the municipality for a period of three months
    immediately preceding Election Day (effective July 20, 2012), and
    continues to so reside
  • You are not otherwise disqualified to vote in the Municipal and School
    Board Elections

Truth is, we have no clue how many eligible voters there actually are in HRM. Think of how many people are probably in HRM who a) didn’t register to vote this time around, and b) weren’t living in HRM before 2009. 2009 is when the last enumeration would have taken place in Nova Scotia, for the 2009 provincial election, which is where HRM got its list from (well, they may have topped it up with a few other sources, but really if you don’t have a car, they won’t find you).

So that’s one way we don’t know the voter turnout: Eligible voters that moved to HRM recently who we don’t know about. This source of error would make us overestimate the voter turnout because these people are actually in the denominator, and if we knew about them, it would decrease the turnout percentage that we would calculate.

Another way we don’t know the voter turnout includes a group of people quite the opposite: People we thought were eligible voters who no longer are, either by virtue of moving out of HRM or dying sometime after the enumeration in 2009, or by otherwise losing their voting eligibility (for example, by becoming a judge). Lots of people have done the first two of these. The third, probably fewer have. Anyway, this source of error would make us underestimate the voter turnout because we put these people in the denominator when we really shouldn’t have. If we removed them like we were supposed to, that would make the turnout percentage increase.

Finally, we don’t really know how accurate that list the province gave us is, anyway. There are reports that this time around, the list from the province was “the poorest one we ever had.”

While these errors probably work to balance themselves out in some way, we really have no clue what the real voter turnout was for HRM Election 2012.

We don’t know the demographic details of who voted

This election, HRM had a huge advance online voting period (13 days worth of it), and the rationale for that was in part that electronic voting would be more accessible and increase turnout, particularly among young people. But guess what? We won’t get to know if it did.

We do have an age breakdown for an early part of the electronic part of the voting, and based on that we can hazard a guess that no, it didn’t help much.

(This graph made by Tim Bousquet at The Coast, and the original article it appears in is here)

This is all we know when it comes to age, though. It remains a mystery to us what the age breakdown was at the polls on Election Day. Hypothetically, maybe it was all 18-39 year-olds who came out to vote on E-Day, and the turnout within that age bracket was the highest it’s ever been. Or maybe none of the people who voted on E-Day were in that age bracket, and this election saw the lowest turnout among young people. Of course neither of these extreme scenarios are likely to have happened, but the problem is we have no idea what the real final distribution looks like.

And according to an email response I received from the elections office on the subject, we’re not going to:

Hi Brenden,

It’s not that [demographic information] isn’t captured necessarily.  It takes a long time to go through 500+ voter lists/record of polls and update the information.  Some people also don’t provide their age or gender either when being registered.  It is not a requirement.  They just have to swear they are 18 (as far as the age qualifications).

(If this is the case, I actually really don’t understand how we have age figures for online voting and not for paper ballot voting, considering the registration process for online or ballot voting was the same, and they didn’t ask for age at the time when we voted online. But I digress.)

EDIT: There was a date of birth verification online. However, that means they must have date of birth for everyone who registered, or that verification wouldn’t work. That means only people who were unregistered and pledged at the polling station should have had the opportunity to get by without providing date of birth.

You know what’s annoying about all of this?

This would all be really easy to fix, if we wanted to

To fix these problems, there are two very simple things we could do:

1. Do an enumeration for our municipal elections

It’s crazy we didn’t do this, and we have Council to blame. There is in fact a whole section about enumerating in the Municipal Elections Act, but it can all be tossed aside because of this clause:

30 (1) By the fifteenth day of April in a regular election year, the council may, by resolution, provide that the returning officer

(a) conduct an enumeration;

(b) use the lists of electors used in the most recent federal or provincial election, or in an election held pursuant to this Act; or

(c) use any permanent register of electors established and maintained for use in a federal or provincial election, as the basis for the preliminary list of electors for all or part of the municipality

Council did indeed choose, by resolution, Option C. That’s why we have Council to blame, and not the Returning Officer, and not the province. Council decided on our behalf that a dated list from the province would be good enough. We can also land some blame on CAO Richard Butts for suggesting it in the first place, but don’t forget it was Council who pulled the trigger.

If we would have had an enumeration, we would have a much healthier understanding of both the number and the demographics of eligible voters in HRM. The window of inaccuracy would have shrunk to a matter of months from a matter of years.

2. Hire more elections staff or find a better way

Clearly the elections office needed more staff on Election Day, but it’s also clear they needed more staff after it, too. Either that or crawl out of last decade and come up with some automatic or digitally-assisted way of inputting voting information. That way it wouldn’t be an impossible labour task to “go through 500+ voter lists/record of polls and update the information,” and maybe we wouldn’t suffer unreasonable delays and counting errors.

It would be so easy to tighten up the election process and reporting, both to make it more accurate and to improve our understanding of the voting trends so that we can make educated efforts at reaching out to more people. I don’t know about you, but I come from a position that democracy is one thing we shouldn’t be too quick to cut corners on.

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About the author

Avatar of Brenden Sommerhalder

Brenden Sommerhalder

Brenden is a writer, editor, researcher, and strategy guy. Editor-in-Chief for Halifax Bloggers.