Fixed election dates in fall 2011 present researchers with an unparalleled opportunity to study the quality of democracy in provincial elections across five Canadian campuses in different provinces.
The Comparative Provincial Election Project (CPEP) draws together nine leading researchers from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Winnipeg, Wilfred Laurier and Memorial universities, and is the largest provincial election study in Canadian history.
“CPEP brings together researchers from across Canada who are all interested in better understanding civic engagement, or how people engage with or participate in politics and society,” said Andrea Rounce, project researcher and assistant professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
Jared Wesley, the principle investigator for the project, said this year’s provincial elections give the researchers a rare opportunity to study provincial voting.
“More than half the country [ . . . ] is actually going to the polls provincially [ . . . ] and what we wanted to do was use this as an opportunity to address a real gap in research on provincial politics,” he said.
Most people equate politics with federal politics, but the new study could help people understand how provincial politics are different, said Wesley.
David McGrane, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan, said he felt there’s largely been a neglect of what goes on during provincial election campaigns.
“This project really is filling a large hole in the knowledge that we have about Canadian politics,” McGrane said.
Voter turnout in most provinces has reached a record low, prompting belief in a “democratic deficit” in Canada, according to the CPEP. Project researchers will study the decline of civic engagement and provide a comparison of how democracy functions in each of the five provinces.
Jason Roy, an assistant professor of political studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the project’s goal is to try to understand what the features of a democratic deficit are, if such a thing does exist.
Many citizens equate the term “democratic deficit” with low voter turnout, but that is not the case for the research team, Wesley pointed out.
“What we’ve defined the democratic deficit as is a situation in which people’s expectations of democracy are not being met by the performance of the system,” he said. “We’re going to assess what people expect of politics versus what they’re actually receiving.”
CPEP scholars will launch a survey of citizens in Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan, polling the outlook of over 5,000 potential voters.
At the same time, other researchers will analyze the content of media coverage and interview political strategists in an effort to study and compare the democratic processes across the five provinces.
This year’s comparative project does not aim to impact individual voters, as there is no public outreach involved in the program, said Wesley.
“We’re in the knowledge generation game, and what people do with that knowledge is up to them,” Wesley said.
However, Alex Marland, assistant professor in the department of political science at Memorial University, said while the study does not aim to affect individuals, it might inform policy-makers about whether democracy is working.
“The audience is primarily the academic community,” he said.
The results of the CPEP studies will be published in a number of mediums to reach a wide variety of audiences — including conference presentations, academic journal articles and books as well as information packages on the CPEP website. The results of the CPEP studies will begin coming out sometime in December, said Wesley.
“It’s going to take us some time to absorb the data that we’ve received and [then] we’ll start releasing press releases about little bits that may be interesting,” he said.
A website outlining the project has been set up and will include routine updates on the provinces’ election campaigns, data as it is released, blog posts from the researchers, and other election resources.