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Ontario election: Where did 825,000 swing voters go?

The fact that so many former NDP and Liberal voters were not motivated to vote at all should set off alarm bells

Canadian Politics

On June 2, after four turbulent and often chaotic years, Ontario voters handed Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative party a second majority government.

Every single PC cabinet minister was re-elected. Only one PC Member of Provincial Parliament was defeated, and then only barely. As Canadian elections go, it was a resounding victory for Ford and company.

It was also a painful defeat for seasoned NDP leader Andrea Horwath and new Liberal leader Steven Del Duca. Both resigned on election night.

PC candidates received 40.8 percent of the popular vote, up slightly from their 2018 result. NDP support dropped nearly 10 percentage points compared to 2018, ending up at 23.7 percent—the same percentage the party had won in 2014. The Liberal vote percentage rose somewhat after cratering in 2018, but in the end, the Liberals only exceeded the NDP’s popular vote share by one-tenth of a percentage point.

The results gave the PCs two-thirds of the 124 seats in the legislature. They began the campaign with 67; on election night, they won 83. With much of its vote concentrated in large cities and the north, the NDP was able to hold on to 31 of its 38 seats. The Liberals, however, won just eight seats, up from seven but still far short of the 12 needed to regain official party status and the resources and staff that go with it.

All of this happened in an election that had the lowest voter turnout in Ontario history. Less than 44 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, a sharp drop from 57 percent in the 2018 general election.

The PCs maintained their vote share even though their final vote total fell by 413,000 votes—an 18 percent drop. This was only possible because up to 825,000 voters who had supported the Liberals in 2014 and the NDP in 2018 did not vote.

In the 2014 general election, the Liberals won a majority. In 2018, huge numbers of voters who had backed the Liberals in 2014 swung their support to the NDP. In 2022, it appears, the bulk of those same voters did not vote NDP and did not swing back to the Liberals: they simply stayed home.

Regardless of whether those voters see themselves as New Democrats, Liberals, both, or neither, the two parties saw 825,000 votes disappear in 2022 compared to 2018: the NDP dropped by 818,000 votes, the Liberals by 7,000.

It is possible that many of the 413,000 voters who voted PC in 2018 but not in 2022 may have actually voted, but voted for other parties. Two new right-wing parties born out of the pandemic, the New Blue party and the Ontario Party, received 211,000 votes province-wide on June 2. Most of those votes likely came from former PC voters and smaller fringe parties. In addition, the majority of votes for “independent” candidates were won by a conservative named Bobbi Ann Brady in the riding of Haldimand—Norfolk. Brady, who had been executive assistant to the retiring PC MPP in that riding, received close to 16,000 votes.

In other words, many Ontarians who voted PC in 2018 but not in 2022 did, in fact, vote. As an estimate, the number of voters who were PC in 2018 but stayed home in 2022 may be in the neighbourhood of 200,000.

There is no similar story outside the conservative universe. The Green Party, sometimes the second choice for NDP and Liberal voters, saw its province-wide vote increase by about 15,000—less than two percent of the 825,000 missing NDP and Liberal votes.

As with most Canadian elections, there has been much post-election debate in Ontario about the negative effects of vote splitting in our first-past-the-post system, and rightly so. But even under the current system, adding 825,000 NDP and/or Liberal votes to ballot boxes on June 2 would certainly have made a difference. There is no telling how much of a difference—that would depend on the distribution of those votes—but it would have changed the seat count to some degree.

After the election, PC campaign manager Kory Teneycke stated that low voter turnout is “indicative of a population that is supportive of the government that’s in power.” That may be true for some people, but there are other explanations. One possibility is that repeated news reports of polls predicting a PC win convinced some Ontarians that their vote could not possibly change the outcome. Another possibility is that non-voters may have found all of the parties uninspiring—including parties they had backed in the past.

As far as what voters and non-voters were feeling prior to election day, public opinion polls offer some insights.

First, union membership appears to have had only a slight effect, if any, on how Ontarians voted. A late poll by EKOS Research found union voters—in both the private and public sector—were just two percentage points less likely to vote PC than the average voter, within the margin of error in the poll.

Second, while the electorate was divided in numerous ways, the most glaring division was along gender lines: men were much more likely to vote PC than women were. In final polls published before election day, both Forum Research and EKOS reported a difference of 18 percentage points in PC support for men versus women, with between 46 and 50 percent of men backing the PCs compared to 28 and 32 percent of women doing so. Other pollsters (Abacus Data and Mainstreet) showed a smaller, but still significant, spread of at least 10 points between PC-voting men and women.

Third, the PCs mostly dominated the conversation about the economy. On the eve of the election, Abacus found that four of the top five vote-determining issues for Ontarians were economic: the cost of living, housing affordability, taxes, and jobs. On these issues, the PCs were seen to have the best approach on three (the NDP led on housing). The Liberals, who typically style themselves as pro-business, did not lead on any economic issues.

The New Democrats, Liberals, and Greens put forward many good ideas during the election campaign, including: phasing out for-profit long-term care; protecting tenants from exploitation by landlords; doubling the incomes of Ontarians scraping by on Ontario Disability Support Plan payments; subsidizing transit fares to be “a buck a ride, province-wide”; cancelling the $10 billion Highway 413 to save farmland and invest in health and education; increasing the minimum wage to $20 and making it easier for workers to unionize; allowing health care workers and other provincial employees to bargain fair wages; and retrofitting buildings to create jobs and boost energy efficiency.

In the end, the party that got the most votes paid scant attention to these ideas. The PC pitch to voters was essentially “jobs, jobs, jobs” (at a time when employers can’t find workers for existing jobs) and assorted cash giveaways (at a time when Ontario spends less, per capita, on public services than any other province). It was simple, and it worked, at least this time.

For progressives whose public policy ideals are built around reducing inequality (through mechanisms to dismantle barriers, deliver universal public services, and ensure basic living standards) and addressing the climate emergency, the Ontario election holds important lessons. Some of those lessons are about policy: for example, progressives need to more clearly define and articulate their approach to the economy, jobs, and taxation. But perfect policy is not enough.

Whether 825,000 past NDP and Liberal voters who stayed home on June 2 think of themselves as progressive or not, the fact that they were not motivated to vote at all should set off alarm bells. Any progressive strategy for change must be rooted in the hard work of organizing, not just in the weeks before elections but always.

To do anything else is to leave people on the sidelines.

Randy Robinson is Ontario Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.


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