06/08/2014 03:35 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:06 EDT

Can Ontario Buck Dismal Voter Turnout Trend?

While the neck-and-neck horse race between the frontrunners in the Ontario election makes for an exciting campaign, it might not have the power to buck a 25-year trend of plummeting voter turnout in the province.

In the 1990 provincial election, 64.4 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, helping the NDP to a surprise victory. 

Turnout dropped every election since then, to 56.8 per cent in the 2003 vote that turfed the Ernie Eves government and brought the Liberals to power, and then to 49.2 per cent in the 2011 race that resulted in a Liberal minority.

That was a record low, and means the Liberals held on to power with the support of just 18.4 per cent of eligible voters. It wasn't for lack of excitement: the Liberals and their nearest rivals, the Progressive Conservatives, were within 2.2 percentage points in the popular vote.

At the time, Democracy Watch co-ordinator Tyler Sommers said "alarm bells should be going off." 

"Voter turnout will go back up if the voting system is changed, if Elections Ontario does its job properly and informs Ontarians of their right to decline their ballot, if the fixed election date is pushed back to late October, and if the parties make promises to end undemocratic elections and government," he said.

Option to decline ballot

The organization, which campaigns for democratic reform and accountable government, is once again highlighting the option for voters to decline their ballots if they're not satisfied with any party or candidate, or as a protest against the process as a whole.

Democracy Watch's Duff Conacher said this week that declining one's ballot signals that you care about voting, but don't like any of the choices.

"Essentially you go to the polling station, you are handed your ballot and then you hand it back" to the poll clerk, he explained.

"Come out and send a message to the parties saying I don't like any of your platforms or your leaders. It's not the best system, but at least indirectly you can send a message saying: 'I don't really support any of you, there's problems with the system.' "

The choice to decline a ballot on voting day is enshrined in Section 53 of Ontario's Election Act. Those ballots are tallied and recorded separately from spoiled ballots, and the counts are made public. 

It's effectively a vote for "none of the above," and it got higher profile this year thanks to last week's leaders' debate. In the closing minutes, moderator Steve Paikin encouraged viewers to vote, "even if you decline your ballot." 

Pakin said that before the debate, he received emails describing the "decline ballot" option as a way to get more people out to the polls.

The first hints of how many voters are turning out in this year's provincial election will come on Monday afternoon at 5 ET, when Elections Ontario releases data on how many people voted in advance polls.