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.
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.
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 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.