Exploding the Myth: MMP and Inceasing Voter Turnout

A number of web sites (such as this one, this one and this one) in favour of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) claim that one reason to vote yes in the upcoming Ontario electoral reform referendum is because MMP will arrest the decline in voter turnout. At best, this claim is problematic. At worst, it is flat out false.

Let me be clear. I’m deeply concerned about the decline in voter turnout. Moreover, I wish MMP would help. But the evidence shows that it doesn’t. Specifically, New Zealand and Germany, the two countries that use MMP, have both experienced a decline in voter turnout equal to that experienced here in Canada.

Probably the best example for this is New Zealand, a country which, in 1993, voted to transition from a First Past the Post electoral system (which we use here in Canada) to MMP. In effect, the Ontario electoral referendum is asking if Ontario should follow in New Zealand’s footsteps.

The problem is, that after adopting MMP in 1993 the decline in New Zealand’s voting rate accelerated. Consider the following chart, courtesy of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. MMP did reverse voter turn out, but only for the first election. After this point voter turnout declined faster than before the adoption.

Participation Rate in New Zealand Elections

1960 85.6%
1963 83.3%
1966 79.3%
1969 85.6%
1972 85.3%
1975 81.7%
1978 82.3%
1981 88.9%
1984 87.4%
1987 81.4%
1990 78.6%
1993 79.6%
1996 83.0% (first MMP election)
1999 76.1%
2002 72.5%
2005 n/a

Although Germany continues to enjoy a higher absolute voter turnout rates than Canada, it is also experiencing a decline in voter turn out similar to that of Canada.

Participation Rate in German Elections

1949 76.5%
1953 80.6%
1957 87.6%
1961 86.9%
1965 80.9%
1969 79.9%
1972 88.7%
1976 83.8%
1980 81.8%
1983 81.0%
1987 75.0%
1990 73.1%
1994 72.4%
1998 75.3%
2002 73% * (conservative estimate, divided total votes by Germany’s 1998 population, more likely 72%)
2005 72% * (conservative estimate, divided total votes by Germany’s 1998 population, more likely 70%)

Finally, some pro-MMP sites discuss how countries with MMP have higher electoral participation rates than Canada. This is true. However, this is based on only 2 data points (Germany and New Zealand). However, it is worth noting that New Zealand experienced higher voting rates than Canada even when it had the FPTP system and that, as noted above, participation rates declined faster after the adoption MMP than under FPTP.

So is it the voting system in Germany and New Zealand that creates a high voter turnout? In New Zealand – whose political culture and history is more similar to our own, the answer is definitely no. In Germany, it is possible, but hard to ascertain. What is known is that Germany, New Zealand and Canada are all experiencing a decline in voter turn out at the same rate, and based on the experience of New Zealand, whose switch from FPTP to MMP had no impact on this decline, there is little reason to believe that electoral reform would have a different impact here in Canada.

There may be good arguments in favour of voting for MMP but improving voter turn out is not one of them.

Isn’t it time we put this argument to bed?

9 thoughts on “Exploding the Myth: MMP and Inceasing Voter Turnout

  1. Mike Beltzner

    While I can’t speak for Germany and New Zealand, I know that voter turnout statistics for Canada are deeply flawed in the way they are reported, and from what I understand, shouldn’t be trusted in the slightest.

    The problem rests with the divisor in the “votes cast / eligible voters = voter turnout” equation. In a nutshell, our electronic list of electors contains a lot of stale data which isn’t cleansed between elections. As an example, if I were to move from one riding to another, then file my taxes from that new address, I’d be on the electors list in two places. As another example, if you were to die, your name wouldn’t be removed.

    I went into more detail about this two federal elections ago if you want more detail.

    Reply
  2. Mike Beltzner

    While I can’t speak for Germany and New Zealand, I know that voter turnout statistics for Canada are deeply flawed in the way they are reported, and from what I understand, shouldn’t be trusted in the slightest.The problem rests with the divisor in the “votes cast / eligible voters = voter turnout” equation. In a nutshell, our electronic list of electors contains a lot of stale data which isn’t cleansed between elections. As an example, if I were to move from one riding to another, then file my taxes from that new address, I’d be on the electors list in two places. As another example, if you were to die, your name wouldn’t be removed.I went into more detail about this two federal elections ago if you want more detail.

    Reply
  3. Kim Feraday

    I was just watching Rick Anderson on Politics and the one point that he emphasized that I agree with is that the current system discourages voter turnout in ridings where one party dominates in election after election.

    In these ridings, the other parties tend to dedicate fewer resources and have a greater challenge in fielding quality candidates. Adopting MMP at least begins to solve this problem through the second vote.

    On the other hand, I agree with the previous posts that cited problems with candidate selection etc. My question is, if the current FPTP system leaves alot of voters feeling increasingly disenfranchised but the new system won’t necessarily improve voter turnout, what other options are available?

    Reply
  4. June Macdonald

    The connection between turnout and PR is an area of dispute among political scientists. Some very reputable ones say there will be an increase of 5-10%, Others equally as reputable say there is no connection. So we cannot say for sure.
    One thing is certain, turnout rates around the world irrespective of voting system are declining. Comparing NZ and Germany therefore is not helpful except to note that they have a lot further to drop than we have.

    Note most nations give their results in Eligible voters. We record ours in registered voters which gives a higher number. If we were to report eligible voters, we would find our rankings closer to that of the US.

    So although we cannot say categorically that turnout is related to the voting system, intuitively many people feel that having a vote that counts is a motivator for better turnout.

    Reply
  5. Kim Feraday

    I was just watching Rick Anderson on Politics and the one point that he emphasized that I agree with is that the current system discourages voter turnout in ridings where one party dominates in election after election. In these ridings, the other parties tend to dedicate fewer resources and have a greater challenge in fielding quality candidates. Adopting MMP at least begins to solve this problem through the second vote. On the other hand, I agree with the previous posts that cited problems with candidate selection etc. My question is, if the current FPTP system leaves alot of voters feeling increasingly disenfranchised but the new system won’t necessarily improve voter turnout, what other options are available?

    Reply
  6. June Macdonald

    The connection between turnout and PR is an area of dispute among political scientists. Some very reputable ones say there will be an increase of 5-10%, Others equally as reputable say there is no connection. So we cannot say for sure. One thing is certain, turnout rates around the world irrespective of voting system are declining. Comparing NZ and Germany therefore is not helpful except to note that they have a lot further to drop than we have. Note most nations give their results in Eligible voters. We record ours in registered voters which gives a higher number. If we were to report eligible voters, we would find our rankings closer to that of the US.So although we cannot say categorically that turnout is related to the voting system, intuitively many people feel that having a vote that counts is a motivator for better turnout.

    Reply
  7. Peter MacLeod

    Posted this on another thread, but this is probably the better place for it.

    Bottom line: Voter turnout is a poor argument for endorsing any electoral system.

    There is a very negligible correlation between system and turnout — a fact which was pointed out repeatedly to the Citizens’ Assembly and which was printed boldface in all the relevant CAER materials.

    It was also never used by the Assembly to justify their recommendation — a point which MMP proponents would do well to absorb.
    Nevertheless, while we’re at this game, it might be useful to round out the picture will all available data and include the 2005 stat for NZ which was 77%.

    Then, if you take the average turnout of the four MMP elections you get 77.15% with a standing decline over those four elections of 2% since MMP was adopted.

    The average turnout of the last four FPTP elections was 81.75% with a standing decline over those four elections of 8.8%.

    It’s interesting to note that when you include 2005 data the rate of decline has actually slowed under MMP and has not accelerated, a point recently confirmed for me by the good people at Elections New Zealand.

    All we can say is that the switch to MMP did not arrest the trend, though it may have softened it.

    That said, numbers, numbers. Voter turnout really doesn’t have much room in this debate no matter how much we might wish otherwise. As Dave rightly points out — it’s almost everything but the electoral system which determines how many people show up at the polls.

    Of course, for now it seems we can count on words like ‘accelerate’ and ’slowed’ to retain their special power as every asterisk goes ignored.

    Reply
  8. Peter MacLeod

    Posted this on another thread, but this is probably the better place for it.Bottom line: Voter turnout is a poor argument for endorsing any electoral system.There is a very negligible correlation between system and turnout — a fact which was pointed out repeatedly to the Citizens’ Assembly and which was printed boldface in all the relevant CAER materials.It was also never used by the Assembly to justify their recommendation — a point which MMP proponents would do well to absorb.Nevertheless, while we’re at this game, it might be useful to round out the picture will all available data and include the 2005 stat for NZ which was 77%.Then, if you take the average turnout of the four MMP elections you get 77.15% with a standing decline over those four elections of 2% since MMP was adopted.The average turnout of the last four FPTP elections was 81.75% with a standing decline over those four elections of 8.8%.It’s interesting to note that when you include 2005 data the rate of decline has actually slowed under MMP and has not accelerated, a point recently confirmed for me by the good people at Elections New Zealand.All we can say is that the switch to MMP did not arrest the trend, though it may have softened it.That said, numbers, numbers. Voter turnout really doesn’t have much room in this debate no matter how much we might wish otherwise. As Dave rightly points out — it’s almost everything but the electoral system which determines how many people show up at the polls.Of course, for now it seems we can count on words like ‘accelerate’ and ’slowed’ to retain their special power as every asterisk goes ignored.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Mansbridge Urges Journalists to Improve Political Coverage « BrentWittmeier.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s