Building partnerships to strengthen Canadian democracy

July 22, 2019

Laura Stephenson, Professor, Department of Political Science

Story by Rob Rombouts

Decreasing voter turnout, increased cynicism and threats from outside sources are beginning to undermine the strength of Canadian democracy. The study of elections and democracy is vital to finding effective ways to reverse these damaging trends and maintain the health and resilience of Canada’s democratic institutions.

A new project, funded by a SSHRC Partnership Grant valued at $2,500,000, takes on this challenge. Laura Stephenson, Professor in the Department of Political Science, and Allison Harell, Professor at the Université du Quebec à Montréal, are co-directing a pioneering team of 28 researchers and 23 partners from across Canada in the Consortium on Electoral Democracy/ Consortium de la démocratie électoral (C-Dem) to reimagine elections research in Canada. As one of the largest SSHRC grants received by any faculty member in the Faculty of Social Science, C-Dem is breaking new ground through its innovative application of a cooperative model of consortium-led social science research.

The central pillar of the C-Dem activities will be the continuation and expansion of the long-running Canadian Election Study (CES). Since 1965, generations of researchers have learned how Canadians feel about democracy, react to issues and perceive politicians, and how these attitudes impact their views and vote choice through the CES. The creation of C-Dem ensures this vital survey is maintained, conducting federal election surveys in 2019 and 2023. “It’s incredibly important to have good data on views of the Canadian public in order to understand what is going on in society” said Stephenson.

But more than a national survey on federal elections, C-Dem also expands the study of democracy in the provinces and territories as well as during inter-election years. The team will carry out one provincial election study in every province and annual cross-Canada surveys. Additionally, it will expand the study of electoral democracy into Indigenous communities, a valuable topic not previously covered by the CES.

“The yearly studies will be important for studying trends,” said Stephenson. “The data is important to help us figure out what people are thinking and how they are reacting to events around them.”

A core feature of the C-Dem consortium is its diverse network of project partners. In addition to its four university partners, C-Dem brings together government entities, including Statistics Canada and the Tlicho Government of the Northwest Territories, electoral management boards in five provinces, and civic organizations such as Apathy is Boring, CIVIX, and the Forum for Young Canadians. Project partners will pool their resources and build upon mutual interests to investigate together the health of Canadian democracy over time.

Stephenson said the diverse partnership is important to ensure the study project produces data and research results that are relevant to as many people as possible.

“Academics can design surveys that best suit research interests, but there are lots of groups studying democracy from different perspective, thinking of things in different ways,” said Stephenson. “For example, electoral management bodies think about how people get to the polls and whether the public thinks votes are secure. Incorporating perspectives from our partners will help to make this project most useful.”

To maximize the use of C-Dem research, the project data will be made accessible to all. Designed in partnership with the Centre for Computational and Quantitative Social Science, under the leadership of Dave Armstrong (a co-investigator on the grant), a dynamic website will be a cornerstone to C-Dem’s outreach strategy. Using multiple interactive and visualization features, the website will make C-Dem data accessible to organizations and the general public, including teachers and journalists, so they can see for themselves different aspects of attitudes toward democracy in Canada. C-Dem will also support a variety of other outreach activities, such as PoliDoc, a contest for youth to develop short films about democracy, to engage all Canadians in supporting the health and vitality of democracy.

“We are trying to rethink how people study democracy in Canada, and make it more efficient and useful,” said Stephenson. “We will maintain the highest academic standards while being mindful of the great potential for how information and research can be used in the greater social and public policy field.”