The Saskatchewan Election:
A 2020 Perspective
2020 Saskatchewan Election: Voter Turnout
By Dr. JOHN COURTNEY (PhD), Senior Policy Fellow, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This paper amounts to a preliminary reading of voter turnout in the 2020 election. It was written on October 28 when the counting of some categories of ballots was still underway or had yet to be undertaken. Accordingly, the voter turnout figures referred to were based on election night totals—the so-called “First Preliminary Count.” That is the total of ballots cast in-person at designated polls, advance polls, and personal care facilities. It constitutes the overwhelmingly large share of the total number of votes cast. However, it does not include the mail-in ballots returned to Elections Saskatchewan by Election Day (61,265 ballot packages were mailed to registered voters), which are slated to be counted starting on October 28. Nor does it include the in-person Absentee ballots, Hospital, Remand and Temporarily Displaced Voters’ ballots, and Extraordinary Voting ballots, which will be added to the “Final Count” of all ballots and announced on November 7.
What is Voter Turnout and Why is it Important?
Voter turnout is the proportion of registered electors who vote in an election:
Number of votes cast/Number of registered voters = per cent turnout.
Determining the level of voter turnout is a useful way of gauging citizen interest in an election. The greater the attention voters pay to an election campaign, to party policies and promises, to statements of party leaders and candidates, and the more they discuss the election with fellow workers, friends and family, the greater the likelihood they will vote. Accordingly, that interest will be reflected in a higher level of voter turnout. The less attention the voters pay to parties, leaders, policies and promises, and to political engagement generally, the lower the level of turnout.
A higher, in contrast to a lower, level of voter turnout is an important indicator of a political system’s legitimacy and well-being. For the better part of a century, Saskatchewan had one of the highest levels of voter turnout among the provinces. This pointed to a considerable support for, and engagement in, the political system on the part of Saskatchewan citizens. Those days are now behind us, as has been demonstrated by turnout figures from the past thirty years. That is rightly seen as a cause for concern about the state of electoral democracy in Saskatchewan.
Voter Turnout in the 2020 Election
For most of the past century, Saskatchewan registered high levels of voter turnout in provincial elections. In 15 of the province’s 18 elections between 1921 and 1991, turnout ranged from a high of 84.9 per cent in 1934 to a low of 80.3 per cent in 1975. The remaining three elections were in the range of 70–79 per cent: 1925 (73.6 per cent), 1967 (77.8 per cent), and 1978 (79.4 per cent). For all 18 elections over that 70-year period, the turnout in Saskatchewan averaged 82 per cent. These are impressive figures for a jurisdiction that, along with all others in Canada, has never adopted the compulsory vote.
But voter participation in Saskatchewan elections began to slip in the mid-1990s. In the six elections between 1995 and 2016, not one reached the 80 per cent+ range: two (2003, 2007) averaged 73.5 per cent; three (1995, 1996, 2011) averaged 65.6 per cent; and in the province’s penultimate election (2016), turnout dropped dramatically to a record low of 56.8 per cent.
Based on the 2020 election night totals of ballots cast in person at the polls, ballots cast over the five-day advance voting period, and ballots cast in personal care facilities, a total of 385,461 votes were counted. As the number of registered voters was 820,850, the turnout rate was 46.95 per cent. It would be highly unlikely that the ballots remaining to be counted between October 28 and November 7 would add a further ten percentage points to the level of voter turnout. Thus, the voter turnout in 2020 will enter the record books as the lowest in the province’s history.
Voter turnout can be negatively impacted by short-term, “one-off” events, such as fires, floods, or blizzards. A pandemic such as the novel coronavirus outbreak in Canada (and the rest of the world) would fall into that category of a totally unprecedented event. Only further study can determine how many electors chose to avoid voting in a public place on Election Day or took advantage of any of the “convenience voting” mechanisms (mail-in ballots, advance polls) that Elections Saskatchewan made available. It is reasonable to expect a decline in turnout because of the virus.
Regardless of the pandemic, however, the fact remains that a gradual slippage in the level of voter turnout in Saskatchewan and other provinces has taken place over the past few decades.
Explanations vary for the declining turnout. They include (1) the widespread disinterest in and indifference to the political process, particularly among younger people; (2) the almost total absence of “civics” in the K–12 school curriculum; (3) the growth in alternative forms of political participation, such as demonstrations and boycotts; (4) the popularity of social media and the decline of direct personal engagement (such as door-to-door canvassing) by candidates and parties with voters; and (5) a marked fall in citizen participation in voluntary organizations, service clubs, churches, and (most important from the standpoint of a healthy democracy) political parties.
Why does Voter Turnout Vary from One Election to the Next and from One Riding to Another?
As in previous elections, voter turnout rates in 2020 were far from uniform across the province. They tended to be lowest in ridings with little effective inter-party competition, such as the two northern ridings (Athabasca and Cumberland) dominated by the NDP. With an average turnout of 28.8 per cent, they were 20 percentage points below the province-wide total. The Lloydminster seat, effectively controlled by the Sask Party through several elections, fell into the same category with turnout of 30 per cent. It is also the case that the two inner core ridings in the two largest cities (Saskatoon Centre and Regina Elphinstone-Centre) typically have low turnout figures. With an average turnout of 29.9 per cent in those two, 2020 proved to be no exception.
By contrast, voter turnout was average or above average in urban ridings in the relatively new fringes of the two principal cities. These can be loosely characterized as having populations above the average provincial riding size and as being made up of young families with above-average incomes (often two incomes) and education levels. In Regina Wascana Plains, for example, the turnout was slightly over 50 per cent.
Finally, one last group of ridings stood out as exceeding the provincial average turnout level to a degree unmatched by any other group. These were the four rural ridings in the province’s oil-producing areas in which the Buffalo Party placed second to the winning Sask Party candidate: Cannington, Kindersley, Cypress Hills, and Estevan had an average turnout of 56.2 per cent—nearly eight points ahead of the provincial turnout level. The Buffalo Party’s showing points to the importance of (a) party organization in mounting a challenge to the status quo and, at the same time, (b) engaging citizens in the electoral process.