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Widespread increase in voter turnout for forty-second federal election

Over 70,000 students voted at campus polling stations
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The 2015 federal election brought about a number of significant firsts — not only did a Liberal majority defeat a decade of a Conservative government, Canada made strides in representing its diverse and multicultural identity by electing a record 88 women, 10 Muslims, and 10 Indigenous Members of Parliament (MPs), including its first MPs of Somali and Afghan decent.

This year’s election saw a seven per cent rise in voter turnout. Around 68 per cent of eligible voters voted this year, a noteworthy peak in the two decades since 1993.

The House of Commons is now comprised of 184 Liberals, 99 Conservatives, 44 New Democrats, 10 Bloc Quebecois, and one Green. Liberal candidates prevailed in all three ridings that encompass U of T campuses — University-Rosedale, Scarborough-Rouge Park, and Mississauga-Erin Mills — Chrystia Freeland, Gary Anandasangaree, and Iqra Khalid won with 50 per cent of the vote or more.

The rise and fall of the NDP

Perhaps one of the most surprising results of this election was the significant majority win for the Liberals. National public opinion polls show that about a month before Election Day, there was a momentous turn in supporters for the three major parties. Before mid-September, the NDP was in the lead, with the Liberal party rising to second place towards the beginning of September. By the end of September, Liberals were first in the polls, their support rising rapidly, while the NDP fell to third place.

There are several speculative explanations for the NDP’s sudden decline, the most popular reason being strategic voting. “I think there was substantial strategic voting in this election, particularly from NDP voters who abandoned that party to support the Liberals,” said Peter Loewen, a political science professor at U of T.

Stefan Ferraro, a political science teaching assistant  at UTSC, as well as an NDP supporter and volunteer in Eglinton-Lawrence, describes his experience as a canvasser at a UTSC federal elections panel held last Thursday. “I would argue that 95 per cent of [NDP supporters] said, ‘I’m sorry, I love the NDP, but I’m so scared of Harper that I can’t vote for you this election.’”

Ferraro believes that Trudeau’s promise to reform the electoral system contributed to the rise in strategic voting. “This sort of gave NDP supporters the confidence to say, ‘not this time.’” Ferraro mentioned that during the last run of the campaign, CBC reported that around one in four NDP supporters had switched their vote.

How the Conservatives fared

While the NDP faced a severe setback this election, the Conservatives managed to maintain enough seats to be the official opposition. Although the Conservative party lost the election, Matthew Gregory, the outgoing president of the UTSC Conservatives, is more optimistic about the Conservative’s result.

“The Conservatives fared fairly well actually. If we look at all previous governments that had been in power for this long, we see a trend of complete collapse because people eventually get tired of them… For a party change after ten years, 99 seats helms is a massive achievement.”

With a Liberal majority and Conservative opposition, it will be interesting to see how the new government functions. “They [the Liberals] will be able to implement their agenda, but they’ll also have nowhere to hide if they are unable or unwilling to follow through in their promises. In a minority government situation, they could have reneged on some of their more ambitious proposals in the name of pursuing compromises with the other parties,” said Chris Cochrane, a political professor at UTSC.

While Loewen agreed that the Liberal majority will make it easier for them to pass their agenda, he remains cautious about how far they will be able to go. “The prose of governing will overtake the poetry of campaigning, and [the Liberals] will find it difficult to achieve many of their policy objectives.”

One of Trudeau’s main policy objectives includes replacing the current first-past-the-post system to a more proportional electoral system. If it does follow through, it will mean substantial change for the strategies employed in the next electoral campaign.

Voter Turnout and Youth Participation

According to Elections Canada, over 70,000 students voted at polling stations on university campuses.

“Unsurprisingly I think students responded really well to the Liberal’s plan to invest $1.5 billion into youth employment, an issue that of course resonates with youth entering the work force,” said Anthony Piruzza, who serves on the executive of the University of Toronto Liberals. “There were definitely aspects of the Liberal platform that resonated well with the student population and we tried to highlight these policies, some of which also include the addition of a Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council and marijuana legalization.”

Piruzza also attributed the positive response to the large student participation in the campaign itself, a sentiment that Thea Hays-Alberstat, another Liberal student supporter, echoes. “I mainly worked out of Chrystia Freeland and Adam Vaughan’s campaign offices and I was amazed to see the amount of young people volunteering. I think young people saw that over the last 10 years, the Harper government didn’t prioritize youth issues at all. I think that many realized, such as I, that just voting wasn’t enough to get rid of Harper, that we had to give our time to educating more on why the Liberal party was the best choice for Canadians. I think by the amount of volunteers the Liberal Party mobilized, that is really what helped them win a majority.”

Natalie Petra, director of communications for the NDP Youth of Canada, discussed the importance of a social media strategy for greater youth electoral involvement. “I designed the outreach and community strategy myself,” she said. She outlined the three-pronged strategy that the NDP followed: mobilizing the youth on the ground, developing a targeted social media plan, and engaging in a lot of youth debates and media appearances.

“We wanted to empower our youth activists in various provincial wings, regional youth clubs, and campus groups by giving them the resources and training needed to support and volunteer with the local candidates. There were more ways to get involved than ever, and students really took advantage of that,” Petra said.

“Ultimately youth engagement is simple,” said Matthew Campbell, fourth-year representative for the U of T Conservatives, who also worked as a summer intern for the Conservatives’ campaign. “Our formula was basic — knock on as many doors as possible, and engage with the entire family.” Although Campbell does not believe that the overall increase in voter participation reflects a major increase in youth turnout, he did remark upon on the extent of youth participation that he witnessed during the campaign.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at U of T, said that the  high voting turnout is an anomaly and that it will likely decrease in the future. Loewen on the other hand, believes that voting turnout is likely to continue at this level. 

Anthony Piruzza contributes to The Varsity.