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Has U.S.-style 'voter suppression' made it to Canada's election?

One vital question has received little attention so far in this election campaign: Whether "voter suppression" has migrated north from the United States.

The term refers to efforts by one political party, not to win votes, but to convince people not to vote at all. Democrats have long accused Republicans of trying to undermine voter registration drives and of poisoning the well of public discourse through their take-no-prisoners rhetoric.

Most nonpartisan political observers are appalled by the idea of voter suppression because, if true, it would mean a political party is deliberately undermining the health of the body politic and weakening democracy.

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The Liberals believe that one reason they lost so badly in 2008 was that about 800,000 people who normally vote for them didn't vote at all, contributing to the record low turnout in the last election.

They blame the relentlessly negative tone of the Conservative campaign, though they forget that the performance of then-leader Stephane Dion and his highly unpopular Green Shift carbon tax proposal surely had more to do with it.

In 2008, the Liberals managed to suppress their vote all on their own.

This time out, the Conservatives have once again bombarded viewers and listeners with negative advertising. The Grits have countered, belatedly, with negative ads of their own. Their problem, however, is that the Conservative base of around one voter in three is far more committed to their party than the rest of the electorate is to any party.

What we don't know is whether there is an ulterior motive to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's incessant claims that, unless he wins a Tory majority, the Liberals will form a coalition with the NDP supported by the Bloc Québécois. Canadians objected strongly to such a proposal in 2008, which is why all three opposition parties deny having any such plans this time.

The Conservatives might be calculating that, even if the coalition bogeyman doesn't win voters over to their side, the prospect might discourage some Liberal supporters from voting at all–a second-best result.

This may be a conspiracy too far. In all likelihood, no party is engaged in an overt campaign to depress voter turnout. But both the Liberals and the Conservatives may be hoping that, if they can mobilize their vote while discouraging voters who incline to their opponent, that's not the worst thing in the world.

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Call it passive voter suppression–a very Canadian way to play a nasty game.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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