Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 17, 2008
Wake up and mark your ballots Canadians!
Journey to Justice
What can you say to a person who has just admitted that he did not bother to vote?
I recently had coffee in Toronto with a socially aware employee of a religious organization who surprisingly confessed, in a rather embarrassed admission of guilt, that he had not bothered to vote in last month’s federal election.
My friend usually votes Liberal. He met his local candidate, with whom he expressed a certain affinity. The Liberal platform was not particularly to his dislike. So why didn’t he bother to vote?
My Vote doesn’t matter
“I was just so frustrated with the whole situation,” he explained. “The Opposition only supported the government throughout the year, and when I looked at my options during the election campaign it seemed that my vote wouldn’t change a thing, one way or the other.”
My friend was not alone. Some 41 per cent of Canadians decided to exercise their democratic right to refuse to exercise their democratic right. That figure holds a certain unavoidable significance: the Conservatives won on Oct. 14 with only 37.6 per cent of the popular vote. Isn’t it a moment to pause and take stock when an election could be said to be won by the non-voters?
In Canada, it is always hard to avoid comparisons with our neighbours to the south. Many were scandalized by the 2000 American election, with recounts in Florida, hanging chads and court challenges. Yet, the Nov. 4 ballot that elected Barack Obama saw a vastly different reality: the highest voter turnout in decades.
Youth were engaged by a vigorous Internet-based campaign. Grassroots organizing became a priority. Themes of “hope” and “change” motivated many hitherto voiceless electors in what turned out to be an historic campaign.
Did Canadians not vote just because our leaders lack the charisma of a Palin or an Obama?
There are good reasons to vote, if you wish to strengthen your preferred party in future. Based on the vote count, parties receive a rebate from Elections Canada. All of the parties elected to Canada’s 40th Parliament will get less taxpayer money, since they all lost votes when compared to 2006.
The Green Party, however, which did not win a seat, will be rewarded with a much higher total of $1.83 million because its vote count increased by well over a quarter million votes.
In the Prairie provinces of Alberta (28 seats) and Saskatchewan (14 seats), the governing party won all seats but two. Some Prairie people found it difficult to get out and vote when the winner seemed, in many ridings, a foregone conclusion.
As well, new requirements for ID made it difficult for students and transient people to vote. A friend of mine, new to her neighbourhood, was turned away at her poll because she did not yet have a bill listing her home address.
In September, Canada’s bishops issued an election “guide.” Its first sentence read, “Catholics have an obligation to be interested in politics. They should exercise this civic responsibility by becoming involved in the electoral process and especially by voting.”
OK. But if there are structural impediments to civic participation, it can trump an individual’s fervour. To improve the situation, we must change the electoral status quo.
Canada’s “first past the post” electoral system must be questioned. Declining voter turnout, the prevalence of websites offering “vote swapping” schemes, the under-representation of women and minority groups in Parliament, all suggest that some form of proportional representation should soon be introduced.
The Canadian election exposed the problem of intense political control of campaigns from centralized “war rooms.” Canadians objected to the parties’ attempt to keep the Green Party leader from the televised debates.
When Citizens for Public Justice organized a national debate on poverty reduction, the Conservatives prevented their candidates from attending. As long as parties refuse to participate in citizen-led debates, their electoral campaigns will remain expensive media shows full of spin and empty of real democratic content. And more Canadians may refuse to vote.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)1>
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