Understanding Voter Turnout in Canada: What Data Do We Lack?

Article 1 / 11 , Vol 42 No. 1 (Spring)

Christopher H. Achen 

 Voter turnout, particularly among youth, has been in decline over the past few decades. Federal officials have expressed concern about this trend. Although they have sought help from researchers to understand the reasons for the lack of participation in hopes of reversing it, scholars lack some of the information they need to confidently advise policymakers and their fellow citizens on how to get more ballots cast. In this article, the author outlines the main factors/variables which explain voter turnout. He then explains why researchers require supplementary information that only official government records can supply to properly consider these variables. Two sources of official information are highlighted as being particularly relevant—official turnout records and unemployment surveys with a voting supplement. The author concludes by offering three recommendations for how to make this information available to researchers while still taking steps to protect Canadians’ privacy.


Like most democracies in recent decades, Canada has experienced a decline in turnout (see figure 1). Voting among Canadian youth has fallen particularly dramatically. When turnout falls, both the representativeness of the electorate and the legitimacy of election outcomes come under scrutiny. Federal officials have expressed concern, and for a decade and a half, Elections Canada has commissioned research on the topic, including repeated special surveys on youth turnout beginning with Pammett and LeDuc in 2003 and continuing to 2015.2 Thus, turnout matters both as a research puzzle and as a policy issue. Yet understanding the decline, particularly among younger voters, continues to challenge scholars.3 

At present, a lack of relevant data blocks researchers from confidently advising policymakers and fellow citizens on how to get more citizens to cast a vote. We simply do not have the information we need. This article reviews the problem, with an emphasis on Canada and to a lesser degree on the United States. However, the problem is familiar in the rest of the democratic world as well.

The Main Factors in Voter Turnout

The standard variables in use in turnout studies of individual voters fall into three broad categories:

1. The turnout decision itself. Did the citizen cast a ballot?

2. Demographic variables. Here we include the classics known to predict turnout, especially age and education, along with a variety of other factors such as residential location, income, gender, race and ethnicity, religious preference and church attendance, union membership, and other group affiliations.

3. Attitudinal variables. A citizen’s sense of civic duty and the strength of preference for candidates are the most powerful factors influencing turnout, a finding that dates to Riker and Ordeshook.4 Policy views, candidate evaluations, partisanship and partisan strength, media consumption, information levels, and a host of other variables all matter to some degree.

Academic election surveys, notably the Canadian Election Study, include all these variables. However, these surveys on their own are insufficient. They need supplementary information that only official government records can supply, as the next sections explain. Two sources of official information are particularly relevant—official turnout records and unemployment surveys with a voting supplement. The next two sections take them up in turn.

Figure 1. Canadian Federal Turnout since 19685

Why Official Turnout Records Are Needed 

In the great majority of academic studies, turnout is measured by asking the citizen in a post-election interview whether she voted (“reported vote”). In many internet surveys, finding people post-election is deemed too difficult, and the citizen’s pre-election “intention to vote” is used instead. Only a handful of studies have used the official government record of whether the citizen cast a ballot (“validated vote”).6

Vote intentions and reported votes each have well known problems. Good intentions (to lose weight, to quit smoking, and to get to the polls) often fail.7 Reported votes are also unreliable in every democracy.8 As many as one quarter of nonvoters falsely report that they voted (“misreport”), inducing substantial error in the turnout measure. Overreport – the combination of misreport plus the greater willingness of more politically engaged citizens to be interviewed – has grown worse, making reported turnout rates in the Canadian Election Study now more than 20 points higher than the actual rate. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, reported vote was not too misleading,9 but trusting it has become more difficult in recent years.10 In consequence, Gidengil et al.11omitted a planned chapter on turnout from their book on recent Canadian elections.12 Without knowing who in the survey had actually voted, the researchers were stymied.

Thus, validated vote is the gold standard, the only genuinely reliable source of turnout information. However, to make use of official vote records, scholars must have access to them. That is currently impossible in Canada.

Official Canadian eligible voter files are treated as confidential, almost as state secrets. In contrast to Britain and the United States, Canada does not make them available even to political parties, and certainly not to academic researchers, not even in redacted form with no identifying information. Moreover, the record of who voted is not recorded in the voter file itself, and turnout information is destroyed within one year after each election, as specified in the Canada Elections Act. Thus in Canada, even the voter files do not include validated turnout information. In consequence, there has never been a comprehensive voter turnout survey in Canada with validated votes.

Even when Elections Canada, the agency responsible for conducting federal elections and for maintaining the federal electoral rolls, has commissioned surveys to help understand low youth turnout, reported vote was used.13 No vote validation was done, raising some questions about the findings.

Canadian rules are very different from their American equivalents. In the U.S., voter files are a state responsibility, and each citizen’s appearance at the polls (or casting of a mail ballot) is recorded at each election. The cumulative record is maintained so long as the citizen is resident at the same address. With some qualifications, the records are essentially public information.14 Thus with time and effort, American academic surveys can validate their turnout reports.

Maintaining U.S. voter turnout records is not thought to be onerous for the states. California, with a population larger than Canada’s, maintains a high-quality record of turnout for each citizen. Many advanced democracies, such as Germany, Sweden, and Japan do the same, though their records are not public. Even Britain, which has turnout recordkeeping laws like Canada’s, has permitted researchers to use validated turnout information for several British National Election Studies in the 80s and 90s.15 Thus, in its pursuit of voter privacy, Canada has become an outlier among advanced democracies in not maintaining key administrative records on the functioning of its democracy. Of necessity, therefore, Canadian scholarly studies of federal turnout have been forced to rely on self-reports from surveys, with all their attendant errors, if turnout is studied at all.

Elections Canada has done validated-vote studies internally after the last five federal elections, sampling from its own voting records and making use of occasional academic consultants.16 The sample sizes are very large—more than half a million voters in 2016, for example. These studies are very helpful and should be continued, as Canadian scholars have stressed.17 The surveys are not comprehensive: the turnout records include very few demographic variables (age, gender, and provincial residence, but not the powerful factor of education, for example) and no attitudinal data. Even so, it would be very helpful for researchers to have access to the data. However, those internal data files have not been released to scholars interested in extending the results, as has been done in Taiwan, for example, another democracy with strict privacy laws.18 

Canadian provinces maintain their own voter rolls for provincial elections. In Québec, the voter file is updated with the voter’s actual turnout at each election, and the complete longitudinal record is kept in Québec City, just as American states do. While the files remain confidential, one researcher (François Gelineau of Laval University) has been given access to the entire file. Thus, at least in one province, the files themselves are maintained and made selectively available Hence, a follow-on survey with vote validation might be possible in Québec, though none has yet been carried out to my knowledge. 

In light of Canadian privacy laws, it is important to understand that what researchers need and what identifies individuals are quite different. Scholars do not need names, exact addresses, or exact ages to study turnout. “Age 40-45, male, and lives in northern Manitoba” suffices for research purposes, and it certainly does not identify anyone uniquely nor threaten anyone’s privacy. Thus, releasing either the national vote file or Elections Canada’s internal samples, with validated turnout recorded but other information anonymized in this fashion, would not in any way violate the secrecy of individual turnout records.

Validating turnout in external academic surveys raises a different set of issues. In that case, survey respondents need to be linked to their official validated vote records. Doing so requires that researchers have access to the full national voter file with validated turnout recorded for each voter.19 At present, no such voter file exists in Canada. But if it did, it could be released on a restricted basis to scholars who could demonstrate a valid research need for it. And if even restricted release of the voter file is impossible under current interpretations of Canadian confidentiality laws, access could be provided in a “clean room” like those used in the U.S. for access to Census records. Statistics Canada already has a procedure of this kind, using Research Data Centres (RDCs) for some of its sensitive data.20 Alternately, Statistics Canada might do the turnout validation themselves in return for a user fee. Then the full voter file itself would not need to be released. In all such cases, of course, the usual confidentiality rules would have to be observed, but that ethical norm has been virtually universally honored in academic survey research. A validated vote study would present no new obstacles. 

Thus, the Québec precedent is an important one for Canadian turnout studies. Releasing a redacted version of Elections Canada’s internal studies, and creating a national voter file with turnout recorded for each citizen that could be used to validate self-reports from surveys, together would add considerably to our knowledge of Canadian turnout, why it has been falling, and why Canadian youth have been slow to learn to vote in recent years. Under current administrative and legal interpretations, however, these data releases have not occurred – only unvalidated turnout reports are available. As mentioned earlier, unvalidated reports have caused some of Canada’s most sophisticated scholars to abandon the study of turnout, making progress difficult at best.

Labour Force Surveys

In the mid-60s, the U.S. began adding a registration and voting supplement to its Current Population Survey in November of even-numbered years, the dates of presidential and congressional elections. The Canadian equivalent was carried out for the first time after the 2010 federal election. The work was done by Statistics Canada as part of their Labour Force Survey (LFS), paralleling the U.S. procedure. Elections Canada paid for the add-on, which is voluntary for respondents but has achieved a very good response rate. The series has been continued with each subsequent election. As in the U.S., the sample is large (currently more than 50,000 households), stratified by province. The sample size is far beyond that of any academic survey, and thus the LHS is extremely valuable for studying provinces individually. Reported vote is the turnout measure. A large number of demographic and economic variables are included, but political attitude data are not.

A few tables are released from each LHS study; for example, reported turnout by age and education, with some breakdowns by province.21 

Table 3. U.S. and Canadian Data Resources for Studying Voter Turnout

Publicly available? Demographics? Attitudes? Validated turnout?
United States
State voter files yes limited no yes
Current Population Survey (CPS) yes yes no no
Academic surveys yes yes yes usually no
Federal & most provincial voter files no limited no no
Elections Canada in-house studies reports only limited no yes
Quebec provincial voter files limited limited no yes
Statistics Canada LFS surveys limited yes no no
Academic surveys yes yes yes no