The apathy election? Ontario sees lowest voter turnout in its history, early data suggests

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Early data from Elections Ontario suggests that just over 43 per cent of eligible voters, some seen here at a Toronto polling station, cast a ballot in Thursday's election. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC - image credit)
Early data from Elections Ontario suggests that just over 43 per cent of eligible voters, some seen here at a Toronto polling station, cast a ballot in Thursday's election. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC - image credit)

Call it the apathy election.

Thursday's vote in Ontario may have seen the lowest turnout in the province since Confederation.

With some final polls still being counted, early data from Elections Ontario suggests about 43.03 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot — or about 4.6 million of the province's 10.7 million potential electors.

It looks to be the lowest turnout by a considerable margin, too. The previous low came in 2011, when roughly 48.2 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls and Dalton McGuinty's Liberal party won a minority government.

It's also down considerably from 2018, which saw a final turnout of about 57 per cent.

Tamara Small, a professor of political science at the University of Guelph, called this year's voter turnout a "worst-case scenario."

"We want an election to have people come out and exercise their democratic rights, so to have an election this low is quite concerning," she told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.

Historic voter turnout in Ontario's general elections

PCs won 40.8% of popular vote

The early data may be surprising for a lot of those who did cast a ballot this time around. Ontario has been through more than two years of a global pandemic, and the first 20 months of Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford's term were marred by a series of nepotism scandals and unprovoked political battles on multiple fronts.

David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, said that his firm's polling suggests that Ford's handling of the pandemic proved to be a non-factor for a lot of potential voters, with many saying they felt the PCs did a decent job of steering the province. Many others said that, whatever their feelings, they weren't strong enough to cast a vote against the party.

"Despite all of the flux that our lives have been in, there wasn't really a need in many people's minds to change the government," Coletto said of the polling.

"The other factor, though, is the last two years have been incredibly exhausting to most people. And so there wasn't in their mind a really compelling reason to get engaged in this campaign, to find out about the alternatives, to learn about the issues. Because they didn't really think either there'd be much difference in whoever won."

Ford's PCs won about 40.8 per cent of the popular vote share, which is actually down about 414,000 votes from the last election. But that vote share was more efficient, with the PCs picking up 83 seats, seven more than last time.

It also means the PCs sizeable majority was elected by just about 18 per cent of all the eligible voters in Ontario.

It's difficult to say with certainty who benefits most from low turnout, Coletto said. But given low engagement more generally among voters, it could have had an upside for the PCs.

Abacus's polling work showed that, heading into election day, the Tories were doing better than their rivals with older, middle-class and higher-income voters — groups that are typically most likely to vote.

"So in the case where you have lower engagement, the Conservatives undoubtedly benefited from the fact that their typical voter is also the kind of person who's more likely to vote in the first place," Coletto said.

Vote splitting on the left

Some of the PC wins seem to have come from increased vote splitting between the New Democrats and Liberals, who on Thursday took 31 and eight seats, respectively.

The two parties secured nearly identical shares of the popular vote, with the NDP at 23.7 per cent and the Liberals at 23.8 per cent. That means the NDP vote was significantly more efficient and concentrated, and the Liberal share diluted over more ridings.

The Ontario Greens won roughly six per cent of the popular vote, up from 4.6 per cent in the last election, while Independent candidates accounted for another 0.5 per cent of total votes.

That means despite the PCs' firm hold on Queen's Park, a majority of Ontarians who did cast a ballot this week did not vote for the party.

The most recent update from Elections Ontario said 7,990 out of 8,072 polling stations provincewide — about 99 per cent — have reported final results.