How weather affects voter turnout: Will rain keep you away from the polls?

Dec 19 2017, 6:02 pm

It’s the question that comes up every election season: Does weather affect voter turnout? The media and political pundits like to say yes, but what does the evidence say?

The common myth is that rain keeps voters away from the polls, but with the exception of extreme weather conditions like a snow storm or hurricane, which may involuntarily keep people at home, the difference in voter turnout on a sunny day or a rainy day may not be abundantly clear.

U.S. media has long focused on how wet weather benefits the Republican vote, and the theory was confirmed by a 2007 study in The Journal of Politics which found bad weather significantly decreased the Democratic presidential vote and voter turnout in general. A subsequent 2013 study focused on how weather affected one’s voting decision, finding that bad weather decreases risk-tolerance and promotes voting for the “risk-free candidate”. Good weather, on the other hand, incites risk-taking behaviour, meaning more people are likely to vote for a new candidate or a change in leadership.

More U.S.-based evidence suggests voter turnout is reduced by one per cent per inch of rain, and five per cent per inch of snow.

In Canada, there is less peer-reviewed data to analyze, but Statistics Canada did find that weather conditions was the third most cited reason stated by eligible voters as to why they did not vote. The May 2011 Labour Force Survey by Statistics Canada included several questions to determine the cause of low voter turnout and the top five reasons listed were:

  • Own illness or disability / out of town or away from home
  • Too busy / Family obligations / Conflicting work or school schedule
  • Weather conditions
  • Not interested / Felt voting would not make a difference in election results
  • Didn’t like candidates or campaign issues

Other reasons listed ranged from “forgot to vote” to “problems with identification requirements”.

In the last federal election in 2011, Canada received the third lowest voter turnout rate ever recorded, at 61.1 per cent. It was just a few points higher than the 2008 turnout at 58.8 per cent and marginally higher than the 60.9 per cent recorded in 2004.

Weather across the country on May 2, 2011, the date of the last federal election, wasn’t great. Manitoba, for instance, was dealing with historic floods and a week later would see a province-wide state of emergency for the flooded Assiniboine River and evacuations of dozens of communities. All in all, the province had 55.7 per cent of voters turn up at the polls.

Nunavut had the lowest voter turnout in the country at only 39.4 per cent, but look at weather in Iqaluit on that day and it included blowing snow and 70km per hour winds.

On the other hand, Alberta had one of the lowest voter turnout rates at 52.3 per cent, but weather across the province that day was mild and clear for the most part.

In these cases, bad weather may only be a speculative reason why regions had a low turnout rate, but it would be unwise to assume it wasn’t at least a factor.

For election day this year, there is just one region to worry about: southern Ontario. Cities around Lake Huron like London and Huran have seen upwards of 25cm of snow this weekend as snow squalls move westward off the lake. But Monday’s forecast calls for sun and 12 degrees, which could help make getting to the polls easier for many residents.

Elsewhere across the country, forecasters are calling for moderate temperatures and mostly sun, with some areas expecting minor precipitation. Due to a number of circumstances, including extremely high advanced polling turnout where 3.6 million people voted over four days last week, Elections Canada is expecting more Canadians at the polls than we’ve seen in quite a while.