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Voters expected to slightly reverse trend of declining turnout

Voters enter the Toronto Botanical Garden poll station on Monday.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

NDP Leader Jack Layton's second-half surge and youthful "vote mobs" lent an air of electricity to Canada's 41st election campaign, raising hopes voters would reverse a long decline in turnout.

Elections Canada did not have a tally Monday evening, but said anecdotal evidence suggested slightly higher turnout than in 2008, when 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. The 60-per-cent threshold would still be well below the more than 70 per cent of voters who turned out prior to the 1990s, but is consistent with the three elections immediately prior to the 2008 vote.

The apparent reversal came despite early signs of voter fatigue with the fourth election in seven years, and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper blasting the opposition parties for precipitating an "unnecessary" trip to the polls at a time when the economic recovery was still struggling to take hold.

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Elections Canada officials said there were signs of increased interest early on voting day. At one Ottawa polling station, voters lined up 20 deep in the rain waiting for the doors to open at 9:30 a.m. Generally, though, traffic was steady, not spectacular.

The first signs of an uptick in interest came two weeks ago, when there was a record turnout at advance polls over the Easter weekend. It was unclear whether that spike reflected a heightened interest in the race, or merely a continuation of a trend to more advance voting plus the opportunity afforded by the long weekend.

The stunning rise of the New Democratic Party under Jack Layton sparked broader interest in a campaign that had begun with many pundits suggesting little was likely to change from the previous Parliament, where the Conservatives ruled a minority government, the Liberals formed the official opposition, and the separatist Bloc Québécois could legitimately claim to be the voice of francophone Quebec.

In contrast with Mr. Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, Mr. Layton ran an upbeat campaign promising change that appeared to strike a chord with many weary voters. At the same time, young activists used social media and campus rallies to inspire their peers to vote. Youth voting - which has historically fallen well below the average - sagged to a low of 37.4 per cent in 2008.

Indeed, Mr. Layton's surge appears to have benefited the Conservatives as much as the New Democrats, by siphoning votes from Liberals in ridings traditionally held by Mr. Ignatieff's party.

But it was the sense of change from the traditional choice - Conservative versus Liberal - and the embrace of a progressive federalist party in Quebec that transformed a sleepy electorate into an engaged one, said Alex Himelfarb, director of the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs at Toronto's York University.

"I can't tell you how many e-mails and BlackBerries I have got - people are really excited," Mr. Himelfarb said. "They're all over the map, but suddenly an election that was about nothing became about something big."

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He added, however, that the new-found enthusiasm among many young voters is fragile. If the new Parliament merely resumes the partisan mudslinging and nothing really changes, they could become alienated again.

That cynicism is already apparent in the United States, where President Barack Obama - who rode to power on the promise of change - is being vilified by his progressive base because he has not accomplished enough.

It remains to be seen how engaged the youth vote really was - whether the YouTube hits, and Facebook groups and heightened conversation about politics actually translated into a significant increase in turnout at the polls.

That won't be known for several weeks, at least, until analysts have an opportunity to study the results.

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Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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