Lowering the Voting Age in NL: a Proxy for a Deeper Issue

Judging by the reaction in the press to (acting) NL Liberal Party Treasurer Jeff Marshall’s suggestion that the voting age be lowered from 18 to 16 you’d almost be led to believe that people around here actually had a meaningful interest in government. Looking only slightly deeper, though, indicates that this is likely not the case. It’s probably only the media playing up the shouting of the very vocal minority of those whose hobby it is to comment from the sidelines on public matters and on the affairs of government in particular. Worse again, a closer inspection reveals the whole thing to be little more than a feeble attempt to resuscitate a comatose or otherwise unresponsive electorate. The justification, you see, is that allowing 16 year olds to vote might translate to a lifelong interest in politics and, thusly, increased voter turnout.

So, do NL’rs really care much about voting? When you ignore the racket from the chronic social-media addicts and open-line callers, the numbers reveal a more complex reality. Let’s look at the actual urnouts.

Year 1949 1951 1956 1959 1962 1966 1971 1972 1975 1979
Votes Cast 168435 132403 115465 131148 123990 149371 233573 210078 222789 237135
Voters 176281 176281 189240 189240 211921 239616 265653 265653 306427 322239
Year 1982 1985 1989 1993 1996 1999 2003 2007 2011  
Votes Cast 251024 278502 291785 302631 286205 267629 278328 225152 222842
Voters 359087 361087 367912 361912 384709 384709 383783 367561 384821

Table 1: Voter Turnout (source: elections.gov.nl.ca)

By themselves, the numbers do not give much of a story until you use the results to calculate the voter turnout as a percent, and then construct a scatter plot of the results.

Figure 1: Voter Turnout for Each Provincial Election since Canada joined NL

Figure 1: Voter Turnout for Each Provincial Election since Canada Joined NL

A quick glance at the graph appears to have a gradual downward trend. For those of you who like numbers, a simple linear model does show a gradual downward slope of about 1% per decade. The “line of best fit” is shown superimposed on the graph below.

Figure 1: Voter Turnout for Each Provincial Election since Canada joined NL

Figure 2: Voter Turnout Fitted with an Inappropriate Linear Model

Figure 2 is, of course, useless as a tool with which to divine any intelligence. Here are three reasons why. First, the number of points (19) does not represent much of a sample on which to base any sort of prediction; it’s too small to yield a valid trend. Second, the “R squared goodness of fit” measure is extremely weak, thus indicating that the linear model does not fit the data very well. But, of course, you did not need a Pearson R to tell you that, as your own eyeballs told you that the points were not clustered very well about the line.

Third, and most important, figure 2 has no value because human behavior is simply too complex, too unpredictable, to be accurately descried in so simplistic a fashion. Any attempt to do so should only be understood as, at worst, complete piffle and, at best, a jumping off point; an opener for the real discussion, and certainly not anything that deserves serious consideration.

That said, there may be some justification with, in essence, fitting the data to the times. That is, rather than using the data to predict future events, instead note how the actual events are reflected in the data. You are free to attach your own interpretation to the numbers but if you are interested in seeing mine, read on. If not I’m good with a TL:DR; go look at some cute cat pictures or something.

Figure 3: The Data Series Re-Imagined as Four Eras

Figure 3: The Data Series Re-Imagined as Four Eras

Rather than seeing the data as one continuous series I am choosing to join my own knowledge of history with my individual biases—be warned, I have many—and, instead, to view the data in four individual eras, as shown in figure 3. Let’s summarize them.

Era 1: The Transition years. Political interest was at an all-time high in the wake of the narrowly-won referendum that led to what we now know as NL becoming a province of Canada (those of us who live in NL prefer to think of it as the rest of CA joining us, by the way). It should, therefore, be no great surprise to see the first provincial election having an almost perfect (96%) voter turnout. In the intervening years as the province became more integrated into the larger nation and the Joey Smallwood government transitioned away from the (transient) exciting and emotional conquerors to the (long term) more mundane, detail-driven and often heart-wrenching role of administrators, voter interest gradually fell to a more typical 60-70% range. As an aside my fellow “Game of Thrones” fans may see this situation as roughly the same as the one faced by Daenerys Targaryen as she seeks to transition from conqueror to governor.

Era 2: Turbulence. The 1960’s were, by all accounts, a rancorous time for all. On a global scale, the cold war was in full swing. Elsewhere, sectarian violence surged, scaling from long term terrorism (Northern Ireland) to all-out civil war (Middle East and Vietnam). No place was immune, even normally low-key NL was affected. The general unease caused by the largely unpopular resettlement program was only one manifestation of a growing disenchantment with Joey. Bit by bit he had become more of a despot and, one by one, his attempts at provincial industrialization/socialization were coming undone. This led to the bitter and hard-fought elections of 1971 and 1972; events that ultimately drew to a close Joey’s stranglehold on power.

Era 3: Ebb and Flow. With Joey more or less out of the way a slightly aloof (or maybe even disinterested) Frank Moores assumed the role of premier. He was followed by others who came and went in relatively rapid succession. The next twenty years or so were typified by the kinds of issues one would associate with provincial/state governments, that is, the need to provide ongoing high-quality services in an economic environment that did not measure up to expectations. Yes, new-found riches in the form of offshore oil and gas reserves, had been located but much remained to be done before either the product or the money would be seen. As time went on, all across the country, an increasing economic pinch could be felt, thus the ebb and flow.

Era 4: The Emergence of the Fragile Petrostate. Agreements and principles finally started moving toward action in the early nineties, coinciding with tough economic times country-wide, along with a controversial quest for an amended federal constitution that would be endorsed by the government of Quebec. Making matters worse was realization that decades of greed and over-fishing, an ill-thought-out program of expansion in production capability, along with mismanagement by the federal Department of Fisheries had resulted in a collapse of the cod fishery; a devastating social and economic blow to the province.

(A little aside: Did you notice the outlier near the middle of era 4? Who successfully ran for premier that year?)

With so much at stake, political interest moved to a peak in the early nineties. Inch by inch, though, the issues were addressed, for better or worse. Cod fishers and fish plant workers retrained and found jobs elsewhere—some even remained and found better times with other species, most notably snow crab. The attempt to amend the federal constitution ultimately failed, and was largely forgotten by most. Perhaps most importantly, though, the provincial economy reconfigured itself to take in two significant new items: (1) the various components associated with the production of Grand Banks oil and (2) the migratory workforce that supported the production at the Athabasca Oil Sands. Both of these were relatively lucrative for those involved; game changers.

Since era 4 includes the current time it deserves some extra attention. It’s important to note several features of this time. First, judging by the number of housing starts and the relatively healthy real estate market in the larger centers it is safe to say that at the moment people appear (note the emphasis) to be generally doing well. Beneath all of this this, however, lurk several ugly facts:

  1. Families are carrying huge debts. The larger, newer homes come with significant price tags and, therefore, high-payment, long-term mortgages. So, too, with the multiple vehicles and items that can be loosely classified as expensive toys (motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles, boats, RVs and such). This translates to one thing: households have big debts and no savings.
  2. Interest rates are currently low but, as the Bank of Canada currently reminds all, could rise at any time. Even a change of a percentage point or two would result in many households running long-term deficits leading, ultimately, to foreclosed mortgages and personal bankruptcy.
  3. Despite government-initiated attempts to make it do otherwise, the economy is not showing obvious diversification. Larger centres are supported mainly by offshore workers, various levels of government service (government itself, education and health care in particular) and then the mainstay services—retail and such. Rural areas have two main supports: the commute to the Oil Sands and what remains of the fishery.

Put the three items together and you get a very stark reality: we live in an economic and social system that is based mainly on the price of oil. As it fluctuates so, too, will the fortunes of the people.

All are generally aware of this and are responding in the only way they can, namely by putting their heads down and working away as hard as possible, all the while hoping that the actions of government and industry don’t serve to shatter the fragile existence that we all lead. Simply put: it may not be perfect but it can get a whole lot worse.

Small wonder, then, that you see less, not more, interest on voting day. People know what’s going on. Despite all of the talk, promises and rhetoric, government does not really have the ability to transform things the way everyone would like. Voters have this much figured out: (1) despite what the opposition  would like them to believe the ruling party is not a bunch of incompetent, shady do-nothings. (2) despite what the ruling party would like them to believe, those on opposition are neither stupid nor naïve. There’s good and bad on every side, all of whom are generally working as best they can.

Put all of this together and it’s not hard to see why, over time, one might see a gradual decline in voter turn out. Most people have decided to just get on with their lives have delegated the job of both governing and of deciding who governs to others, whoever they may be. For now, at least, they have more important things to worry about, namely their health and wherever the next finance installment is to come from.

But what of Era 5? What, then, comes next? What about the future?

That’s where things get awkward.

Let’s be clear: the past is not necessarily a good indicator of the future. Things change, new factors come to bear. Yes, economists and actuaries do make a good living by making prognostications. But so, too, do gamblers. Some gamblers, that is; many just quietly go bust. Sure the predictions are often good enough—companies and individuals do and will continue to make fortunes on account of them. But, as has been pointed by many, most notably N N Taleb in “The Black Swan” frequently the change agents are things that you simply do not see coming very far down the road at all. Think of the hydraulic ram, the various financial crises and the Internet as some easily-recognized examples. Each one, in turn, came—seemingly from nowhere—and, once in place, nothing could be the same again.

Think about it, almost exactly 100 years ago do you think for a minute that anyone really could imagine the five years of hell (the so-called Great War, or WW1) that was soon to follow?

Don’t think for a moment that we are now beyond the reach of unpredictable events. They will surely occur and will continue to affect us all, for better or for worse. One thing that is for sure is that when they happen people will respond.

And yes, the voter turnouts will change when people decide en masse that “it’s time.”

And so, perhaps we won’t need to fiddle with the voting age at all if it’s only to get the turnout up a bit. All we have to do is wait for the next as-of-yet unforeseen crisis to turn the whole thing on its ear.

Finally, for what it’s worth, here are my two remaining thoughts on the current discussion around the voting age. I have developed these thoughts mostly through working closely, as an educator, with school-aged children over the past 33 years.

  1. Despite having been taught the basics of all levels of government through a social studies curriculum that is developed in all 13 years of their school lives most young people are essentially unaware of the pertinent social and economic issues. They are also sadly lacking in understanding of the mechanisms of government. Most would even have difficulty naming the premier, leader of the opposition, local member of the house of assembly as well as major cabinet ministers such as finance, education and health. Furthermore, not only do they not care but, more importantly, they do not want to have to care about it. They mostly just want to play games, listen to music and hang out (online mostly) with friends.
  2. The small minority who do show an interest are, at age 16, quite capable of not only understanding the issues but, more importantly of contributing in a meaningful way to the conversation that needs to happen around them. As such, they are more than qualified to make an informed choice at the polls.

Oh, and as a parting shot. As for #1 above, it applies quite well to a significant number of not so young people too. Figure it out.

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About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
This entry was posted in Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Lowering the Voting Age in NL: a Proxy for a Deeper Issue

  1. Whew … had no idea this was being discussed in your part of the world. I might add that, given variance about the line, I’m guessing a simple test of that slope of -0.12 doesn’t differ significantly from ZERO. Anyway, your dissection of the political, social, and economic factors in determining turnout in the four eras you define is well done indeed. Rather than looking for a job in education (my last suggestion) I think (no pun intended) that you should sign on to work for a Think Tank … somewhere at the boundary of education and politics. Lots to think about there … what say you? Finally, regardless of the artful analysis you have presented your #1 just above is really what it all comes down to. I had heard, the other day, can’t remember where, that some very large fraction of ‘American Youth’ couldn’t pick Joe Biden out of a group picture! Sixteen-year-olds are SIMPLY NOT ENGAGED. Period. Anyway … nice post … a pleasure to read. D

    • Thanks, Dave, but a think tank is not for me. I prefer to judge what I see based on a combination of my own skills and biases. Most think tanks that I a aware of, despite claiming to be non-partisan, are generally bent toward their own agenda, one crafted by those who pay their bills. It’s more a case of fitting the agenda to teh data rather than letting it inform policy

      • elkement says:

        I do applaud this, Maurice – as it seems that often ‘independent thinkers’ are lured into working for some organization that is desperate for ‘content’. Having following some science / tech bloggers with their own (unpaid) blogs, I noticed that many of them finally moved to one of the bigger platforms like SciAm or Wired. Here you are paid but I believe you give up part of your independence.

        • Yes, and that is not a role I wish to assume. My blog was never intended to be a bid deal. While I am comfortable speaking out and speaking in public I choose not to, for the most part. In gatherings I tend to be quiet, choosing instead to listen as there is generally more to be gained that way. My blog is just the place where I express myself and I like it that way.
          Along the way, though, I have been lucky enough to have encountered other interesting people–such as yourself. Blogging has expanded nicely just beyond the borders of self expression to now include an ongoing conversation with people that enrich my life and I plan to keep exploring this very interesting course.

      • elkement says:

        …should have been: having followed. WordPress, give us an Edit options! 😉

  2. M. Hatzel says:

    My husband and I have been watching your real estate markets over the past few years and noticed the upswing. As sloppy as they are as indicators, they give a shorthand glimpse of local economics. Saskatchewan hit a housing crunch and market boom about four to five years ago. This spring we’re seeing construction take sharp falls and the real estate markets are dropping.

    All indicators are actually in place right now that our province has reached the end of it’s boom. We don’t yet know if it will level off and the demand for resources will continue, or if we’re cycling into the bust years that follow.

    The Johnson-Shoyama Grad School of Public Policy here released a paper a few weeks ago outlining our provincial innovation deficits. At this time, we’re failing to capture the opportunity to develop our resources and move forward into a knowledge-based economy supporting our own industry. Everything including oil, potash, and agriculture is exported. Only a small percentage of processing goes on here.

    And yes, I expect this will send our local government out the door. They came in with a bang little more than ten years ago, on a platform of promises to ‘bring Saskatchewan people home’ [from Alberta]. High voter turn out, then the fall into apathy. We also see the psychology of the boom playing out in high personal debt loads. It was the same in Alberta 15 years ago: high levels of personal debt brought on many other problems, like substance abuse and high suicide rates.

    As an aside, in 2000, my husband and I relocated to northern Alberta. In my husband’s company (an oil & gas survey firm), the staff was almost entirely from Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.

    • so very similar in so many ways. There’s a real danger in living too much in the here and now. While I’ll continue to scoff at those who claim to predict the future, there’s no doubt that some things can be assumed to be stable. The thing that scares me the most is the extreme shift over to oil and gas to the detriment of existing industries. Here n NL, for example, fishing and softwood inductries have not been getting much long-term attention. The formr is mostly going it alone and the latter is dying. One wonders what we will have left when the oil runs out, which it will in 30-40 years.

  3. Mary says:

    Yes – I agree- number 1 applies to more than just our youth and #2 poses a very interesting consideration. I work with students who are actively involved in Model UN and actually many who know quite a bit more about the world, democracy and politics than I do and I would trust them to vote with knowledge and intelligence.
    There is a also an interesting debate here in New Internationalist magazine on lowering the voting age:

    http://newint.org/sections/argument/2013/09/01/vote-argument/
    Perhaps an awareness of politics and voting should be a stronger part of young people’s education…

    • A fascinating debate indeed! As it is right now government does measure strongly in the social studies curriculum, right across the years. One wonders, though, if how well it works. I believe that activities such as model UN and so on do much more to get people skilled and interesting than do traditional classroom activities.

  4. elkement says:

    I agree with Dave – you should work as a researcher / journalist / renaissance man for a think tank! Or publish a book finally!!

    Austria was the first European country that lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 a few years ago. One reason to do this was to give a greater weight to the “voice” of younger people whose votes are underrepresented for demographic reasons anyway – and to motivate the larger political parties to finally address the concerns of younger target groups … which is not the case today in a country that has often been called a gerontocracy for a reason.

    • Thanks, Elke! From time to time I have done all of those but never for a think tank–see the reason I gave to Dave. As for the vote, I remain skeptical of its value. In particular I note that there has never been a groundswell of interest from the younger people to get it and I do know that people do not value those things they have to work for. If young people fought for the vote and won it I think they would take it seriously, merely passing it along to them as their due would only result in a very small proportion–I would guess between 10 to 20% of them–exercising that right.

      • elkement says:

        The other issue I have with not lowering voting age is that age just happens to be a number that can easily be assessed. As you said correctly, your judgment applies to lots of people of all ages.
        But unfortunately you cannot measure stupidity or define the the blurry borderline to mental illness. So why make it extra hard for young people just because they can be tagged so easily by a number? If the argumentation is based on probability, such as “Research shows that 80% of all people under age X are not interested in politics” then there should probably be an upper limit, too, based on the probability of suffering from dementia or other illness with age greater Y…. or based on a mandatory regular medical assessment at any age…or something else that will create public outcry… lots of holy cows being slaughtered here.

        Another solution could be something like an ‘entrance exam’ for 16-18 year olds – an easy hurdle to be passed easily if you are a bit interested.

      • elkement says:

        (Today I am really a spammer…)

        Re my idea of the simple entrance exam – I think this would work well; another example comes to my mind:
        I use a software subscription that is intended to be available to IT professionals only. It gives you the benefit to use that software not only for testing for your own ‘production environment’. Now the vendor does not want any companies whose core business is not at all IT-related to benefit from that subscription. Instead of implementing background checks on the company profile or the like they put up such a simple hurdle – so I believe that works: A test with 10 ridiculously simple questions to be taken every two years or so … very easy to pass for IT guys but probably ‘deflecting’ those who just want to grab (and maybe redistribute) cheap software.

        • This is not spam–spam has no value, whereas this certainly does. I truly believe your idea has merit. Not only would it help ensure that those who want the right get it, but it has a side benefit of being relatively easy to implement.

  5. Tiny says:

    Maurice – a great post. Loved the presentation (the data series laid over the 4 periods was super informative, with possible biases and all) and the points/arguments you make. It’s an interesting discussion. The key to voter turnout is definitely the people deciding that it’s time.

    • Yes, and, right now, with few high-stakes issues up there on the block the figures are not likely to change for the better. A crisis from out of nowhere–something that one can never discount–would change everything in the short term.

  6. Change2015 says:

    I Know the issue here all to well and while I think that this commentary makes some interesting points the only real question here is who is asking for the vote? We are not exactly talking about a true suffrage movement here where groups who are seeking the vote are being denied the right by an oppressive system. In this case we are talking about extending the right to vote to a group that is so disengaged that they don’t even have the desire or ability to advocate for themselves on the issue. By this reasoning it seems like more like parenting than democracy. Is this not cause enough to think that this is a non starter? Jeff Marshall is a great guy and will do great things for the province but let’s start talking about the issues that matter. Sorry but this is not one of them!

    • Agreed. People tend not to value that which they have not fought for. Perhaps I am missing it somehow but it seems to me that there’s no great demand for it right now. If that did happen then it would need to be taken seriously as I have no doubt that people that age are capable of deciding if they cared enough. Right now, though, I do not see that level of interest from our young people and remain convinced that low turnout is due to the factors I elaborated on.

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