Canadian voter turnout has been on the decline over the past couple of decades. This is often attributed to both falling interest in and discontent with the current state of Canadian politics. Not voting is often considered a form of protest or expression of dissatisfaction with politics. This can be discontent with the candidates and parties running for office or the overall political system, the electoral system through which individuals get elected, or the degree to which politicians are allowed to effectively represent their constituents once elected. Abstaining from voting can certainly be tempting. For those that do not feel a party represents their values or that their vote will have little impact on politics not showing up to the polls can seem like a meaningful way to signal dissatisfaction with politics. The problem with not-voting is that it is not an effective form of political action. It does not provide a clear indication of what voters are dissatisfied with, nor does it give politicians incentives to respond to the opinions of those that are dissatisfied.
The first problem with non-voting as a form of protest lies in its silence. Individuals can be dissatisfied with politics in a number of ways. They may feel unrepresented by the parties or the candidates that they have to vote for, they may feel that there are problems with the way that the electoral system translates votes into seats in the legislature, or they may feel that rules in the legislature limit the degree to which representatives respond to their opinions. The complexity of political systems make vague signals of voter discontent difficult to translate into political change. Politicians that see declining voter turnout may get the message that there is something wrong with the political system, but they have no way of knowing where the problem lies. Politicians have no sense of whether voters might be satisfied by a change to the electoral system, a decrease in party discipline, or the formation of a new political party to try to cover the opinions of non-voters. There is also no clear signal of how many people support particular changes, nor whether large numbers of non-voters are discontent with politics or whether they are simply disengaged with politics. Not knowing how much support is behind different options for political change makes it difficult for politicians to support reforms with any confidence that those reforms will address the concerns of those that are discontent. Protest movements can be effective when they demonstrate widespread popular support for a particular policy or action. Abstaining from voting gives neither a clear signal of the problem that an individual has with politics nor the amount of support behind different options for political change.
A viable alternative for individuals discontent with the political system may be the support of protest or other parties that may not have a strong likelihood of winning government, but that may still have an impact on politics. Increases in votes for small parties, especially single issue parties, provides major parties with a clear indication of where discontent voters stand. A growth in support for the Green party, for example, shows other parties that there is a segment of the population that might be persuaded to vote for them should they adopt stronger environmental policy. The emergence of the Reform and Bloc Quebecois in 1993 signalled a clear discontent with the way that politicians had handled the constitution over the course of the 1980s. Surges in support for particular parties give the mainstream parties some indication of the kinds policies that discontent voters support. Mainstream parties can then respond to these surges by adopting some of the policies of the protest parties.
There are limits to how much parties will respond to protest parties. Even when small parties are included in the options available to voters, voters are still limited to the parties that are running in the election. If there is no party taking a strong stance in favour of proportional representation for example, it is difficult for non-voters to signal a preference in favour of a change in the electoral system. Additionally, for protest votes to be effective, a large number of voters need to back a particular protest party. Small increases in support for small parties are unlikely to have an impact on politics. Finally mainstream parties have to feel that adopting the protest parties will not hurt their ability to hold on to their current supporters, voting for a protest party cannot not change the policies of a mainstream party when the mainstream party believes that its policies are well supported. Nonetheless voting for protest parties sends a much clearer message to parties than not voting at all. It gives politicians at least some indication of whose policies they need to look at if they want to reach out to disaffected voters.
The second problem with abstaining from voting as a form of protest is that it does not give politicians an incentive to respond to the protest. Not all parties benefit from increases in voter turnout. A party that just won an election is unlikely to want to change the make-up of the voting population, given that that population just got it elected to power. Increasing voter turnout comes with the risk that new voters will support an opposition party. This leaves the parties with the most influence over changes to the political system with the least incentive to listen and respond to the concerns of non-voters. Parties face two sets of incentives when engaging voters. They have an incentive to make sure their supporters vote and an incentive to convince voters on the fence between different parties to support them. Discontent non-voters are rarely counted as supporters of a particular party so they give parties little incentive to reach out to them with mobilization efforts. The fact that they are not voting leaves parties little to gain by speaking to their issues. If an individual is not going to vote, she is not going to hurt the chances of a particular party getting elected. A party has a much stronger incentive to try to win-over the support of a voter who will hurt the party by voting for a competitor. Effective protest forces politicians to respond on issues important to the protesters by giving incentives to politicians to adopt the policies that the favour. Abstaining from voting does the opposite. It allows parties not to worry about the issues of non-voters while they focus their attention on the individuals that do vote, and as a result, have an effect on whether they get to remain in office.
Elections are one of the strongest tools that individuals have to influence political change. Voting sends important signals to politicians that abstaining cannot. It shows that discontent individuals will play a role in deciding who gets elected to government, and it demonstrates the direction of voter discontent. A surge in support for the Green party will force other parties to look at the Green party platform in order to try to find policies that they can use to steal Green support. Even support for “least bad option” parties gives other parties an incentive to look for issues that can split voters away from their least bad alternative and bring them over to their side. The more likely discontent individuals are to cast ballots, the more likely they are to see the change they seek.