Federal legislation designed to increase voter turnout could backfire by disengaging the people who currently display the nation's highest levels of civic participation.
Bill C-16 would increase the number of advance polling days to five, including polls on two Sundays.
The government argues that Sunday advance polls will increase voter turnout, but it seems more likely that by imposing itself on a day of some stature for people of the nation's dominant faith community, voter turnout will instead further decline.
Bill C-16 amends the Canada Elections Act to establish a "Last Day of Advance Polling" on the Sunday immediately before election day. This "last day" would have the same number of polling places open from noon till 8 p.m. as on election day.
In addition, there would be four consecutive advance polling days on the 10th, ninth, eighth and seventh days before election day -- Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday -- the week before the election.
At committee, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan testified that Sunday advance polls are in response to research indicating that people who don't vote point to the lack of available opportunities to cast their ballots. Van Loan also pointed out that Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec already have advance polls on Sundays. He didn't say, however, whether Sunday polling resulted in increased voter turnout in those provinces.
In Saskatchewan, no particular day of the week is proscribed as election day. Advance poll days are set by counting back from whatever day is designated as Election Day, so advance poll days may or may not fall on Sunday.
In this year's Manitoba general election, advance polls were held on Sunday for the first time. Voter turnout this year was 56.75 per cent, up but not decisively so from the 54.17 per cent turnout in 2003.
In Quebec, Sunday polling was implemented in 1979. In 1976, before Sunday voting, voter turnout was 85.27 per cent.
In 1981, with Sunday voting, turnout was lower at 82.49 per cent.
In the most recent Quebec provincial election this year, voter turnout was 71.23 per cent.
Representatives of various faith communities who appeared in committee hearings spoke with one voice: Parliament should reconsider holding advance polls on Sundays.
Douglas Cryer, director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, noted that C-16 may depress voter turnout among those one-in-four Canadians who regularly attend religious services on Sunday.
Based on their analysis of Statistics Canada's 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey of
41,666 citizens, landed immigrants and temporary residents, political scientists L.S. Tosutti and Mark Wang found that those who attend Christian services weekly or monthly are noticeably more likely than other Canadians to vote.
Is it good public policy to effectively discourage a quarter or more of the Canadian population, with a proven track record of civic engagement, from participating as voters in elections? What message does the government send these voters if it insists on pushing forward with advance polls on Sundays?
According to the Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the January 2006 election, there were 21,403 poll locations and 2,767 advance polling places during the 2006 general election. Of the polling places on election day, 12.3 per cent were located in church facilities.
On advance poll days, 18.8 per cent of polling places were located in church facilities.
This does not include church schools, hospitals or other facilities operated by churches.
When Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand appeared before the House committee on C-16, he indicated that 11 per cent of all polling places for both election day and advance polls -- some 2,200 -- were located in "churches or other places of worship." As he suggested, many -- if not most -- church facilities would not be available for Sunday advance polls.
If C-16 is passed and Sunday advance polls are implemented, it seems unlikely voter turnout would increase. The evidence suggests Sunday advance polls would make it more difficult for returning officers across Canada to find suitable space for polling places.
More to the point, C-16 may well reduce voter turnout among churchgoers -- the quarter or more of Canadians who are proven to be the most likely to vote.
Given those conditions, it makes sense for the government to head back to the drawing board on Bill C-16.
Ray Pennings is vice-president of research for the Work Research Foundation.