As I write, another Canadian federal election has come and gone. With it has gone the usual lamentations about the low voter turnout – just under 62%, this time around. Newspaper editorials have accused non-voters of being bad citizens. Radio announcers have called them irresponsible. Rick Mercer has compared young non-voters unfavorably to their counterparts in other countries who are fighting for their rights. Political leaders have frowned gravely and said that something must be done.
All of which sounds serious – and very much beside the point, because it does almost nothing to convince the average non-voter to cast a ballot. Despite all the concern expressed this past election, the voter turnout only increased by three percent this election, placing it well within the range of voter turnout for the last decade.
For one thing, I am not convinced that the problem actually exists as all the amateur and professional pundits define it. I can’t help but noting that the decline in voter turnout seems to have accelerated after 1997, when door to door enumeration for each election was eliminated as being too expensive. Possibly, part of what we are seeing is not apathy but the natural attrition as people move, change names, and otherwise fall through the bureaucratic cracks. Conscientious people, of course, might make sure that they are registered to vote, but it is far easier to register when officials come to your door than if you have to make a special trip or drop a form in the mail.
But even if the end of universal enumeration does not fully explain the decline, nagging people is not the most effective way to get them to do anything, even with the forced excitement of voter mobs. Nag nine out of ten people to do something and they will mutter incoherently and change the subject as soon as possible. Then they will go out and do exactly the opposite of what you urged.
The only way to get people to vote is to make them feel that they have a stake in the results. But that is hard to do in the current age, when people are easily kept informed but only have a say in policy every few years – and then only the indirect one of choosing who will lead them. And, in Canada, only one in 308 ridings actually votes for the Prime Minister, and only about twenty-five ridings vote for cabinet ministers (although, often, the votes don’t know that they have voted for a cabinet minister until several months after the election). The other ridings vote for back-benchers whose main job is to stand behind their leaders and look supportive. This is such a low level of involvement that it is easy to dismiss as irrelevant.
More importantly, the average politician is badly out of sync with the age. They have not caught up with the Internet, and continue to play politics in much the same way as they have been played for over a century. They haven’t fully realized, for example, how easily they can be caught out in a lie, or that their accountability is easy to check. Political parties may reject candidates who have embarrassing pictures on Facebook, but few have realized that they are subject to the same scrutiny. Consequently, they are often found wanting.
I don’t think it an accident, either, that voter turnout is lowest among those under thirty-five, and among minorities such as the First Nations. How can these groups believe that politicians can represent their interests when the average Member of Parliament is a middle-aged European ethnic? Especially when the average MP never talks about those interests, except perhaps to mouth a few noises of concern that are never followed by any action? A few years of empty promises, and you can be forgiven for thinking that an election doesn’t have much to do with you, and that voting is a waste of time.
If we as a society really wanted to increase the voter turnout, we need to make politics relevant. We need to insist on policies that attract the attention of those alienated from the mainstream, and that politicians actually listen to people and talk about what concerns them. But these courses of action are difficult to take, and sound dangerously left-wing. Instead, in the words of Gwynne Dyer talking about soldiers in the Nuclear Age, it is easier for politicians to keep the old game alive and pretend that nothing has changed in the last half century.
And if the problem of low voter turnouts is raised? Simple – just mouth a few platitudes and blame the non-voters themselves, and return as quickly as possible to business as usual.