Reflections of a 94 percenter

It’s still there on my fridge door: “Election for School Trustee. Winnipeg School Division, Ward 1. Your Voting Location on Election Day, Saturday, November 26, 2011 between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. is Grant Park High School, 450 Nathaniel St.”

I know — ideally, it shouldn’t still be there, but rather have been redeemed for a ballot at the polling station.

I admit it: I didn’t vote in the Winnipeg School Division Ward 1 by-election to replace former trustee Joyce Bateman, who was elected to Parliament as a Conservative MP in the May 2011 federal election.

In fact, very few residents voted.

Only six percent of enumerated voters actually cast ballots in the Nov. 26 Ward 1 by-election: 2,626 voters showed up in the ward covering Fort Rouge, River Heights, Osborne Village and Crescentwood, an area containing more than 25,000 households — and normally one of the city’s most electorally engaged neighbourhoods.

In a part of town that tends to spread its electoral bets — my federal MP, provincial MLA and city councillor are, respectively, a Conservative, a Liberal and a man whose family has long been associated with the NDP — it’s perhaps fitting that the Liberal-turned-Conservative Joyce Bateman has been replaced on the school board by the NDP-affiliated Mark Wasyliw.

Personally, I’ve voted in most election since turning 18, just enough years ago to remind me that I’ll soon be 40, missing just one provincial election along the way in a bout of cynicism.

It’s the one gap in what has been otherwise a proudly inconsistent voting record. (I’ve voted for each of the three parties represented in the Legislature at least once, and for a similar number of federal parties.)

Now there’s a second, admittedly small, gap in my voting record.

This lapse comes just a few days after Elections Canada released a report examining why it’s so painfully difficult to get younger Canadians aged 18-34 years out to the polls or interested in politics.

Elections Canada records show that about 36 percent of enumerated 18-34 year olds turned out to vote in the May 2011 federal election. Factor those who were never enumerated at all into the equation, and the real turnout was probably much lower.

The single most common reason why younger Canadians didn’t vote in the federal election, according to the Elections Canada/R. A. Malatest telephone survey of 2,665 voters and non-voters: being “too busy” with other things.

I suppose that category adequately describes my own reason for not voting in Saturday’s school board by-election. Had I been sitting at home, bored, I probably would have spent a couple of hours reading up on the candidates, and then would have walked over to the high school to vote.

Yet, I was neither bored nor sitting around at home. A low-stakes school board election just wasn’t all that important; an opinion reinforced by the fact that the only signs I saw of a campaign were two brief on-the-street encounters with the energetic and affable Ben Shedden* and an irritating pre-recorded voice mail message in which someone whose name I’ve forgotten endorsed someone else whose name I’m not sure of — possibly Mark Wasyliw. (That goes to show how much attention I pay to this tacky campaign technique.)

All other candidates — and issues — were out of sight and out of mind.

Evidently, the other 94 percent of enumerated voters who never showed up felt much the same way.

But, as is often the case with open-ended survey questions, the “too busy” label only scratches the surface. It’s an answer the interviewer accepts without much further investigation before moving on. (With public patience for telephone polls and telemarketers becoming scarce, the interviewer has little choice.)

Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that when someone tells the interviewer that they were “too busy” to do something, it really means that it just wasn’t that important. If it had been important, they would have made time for it.

The “too busy” answer is simply a way of being polite.

How can politics and voting be made more important? There is no easy answer to that, as it is difficult to make people care about things unless you can show some kind of personal impact or tug at their heartstrings.

Few people give more than a fleeting thought to politics in their day to day lives. They’re spending most of their waking hours thinking about how to protect themselves against life’s uncertainties, solve their immediate problems, and scanning the crowd, looking (or at least window shopping) for a good set of genes or a good provider to mate with.

They sometimes care about other issues, but not that much.

In a previous era, politics fulfilled people’s social needs. In a small community, taking part in politics was a productive way of meeting people, and a welcome break from the monotony of small-town life and the isolation of farm life. In an era when political patronage was considered more acceptable than it is today, becoming involved in politics also made sense from a business and financial point of view.

Small-town life, however, is no longer the norm in Canada, as the nation continues to consolidate into 6-8 major metropolitan areas and their hinterlands. Public tolerance for political patronage has worn thin (and rightfully so), leaving the vast majority of the public, aside from those few with political aspirations of their own, with nothing to be gained by joining a party.

So here’s an idea: let’s recognize the “your vote is important” message for being the insincere flattery that it is. Most younger Canadians know when their vote is important and when it’s not.

Let’s toss out the idea that the key to getting more voters to the polls is through e-voting, a faddish idea that would put the integrity of the electoral system at risk. If people really want to vote, they’ll find a way of getting to the poll.

Let’s shelve the old argument that those who don’t vote have no right to complain. Few young Canadians fall for that kind of manipulation. They know that human rights law and their citizenship backs up their right to complain.

Let’s recognize that mass participation in politics is not always a healthy thing for democracy. Though high voter turnout tends to be a sign of strong levels of public trust in their institutions and each other, high levels of partisanship are signs of a more troubled society. Aside from the United States, most countries with high levels of party affiliation are undesirable places to live, usually due to the corruption and patronage that is likely making it worthwhile to take out a party membership to begin with.

And as the U.S. example shows, high levels of partisanship can make disputes much more difficult to resolve. In a healthy democracy, card-carrying party members should make up no more than two to three percent of the population.

Let’s allow the old myth that politics is so important that the vast majority of the population should be involved at all times — politics are important, but not that important — to recede gracefully into the past, and accept the right for people to increase or reduce their political engagement as it suits them.

* – Had Shedden simply mentioned that he was the only education professional running for election — an angle I uncovered while writing this post — I would have made a conscious note to go out and vote for him. Unique qualifications do stand out — but only if the voter knows about them.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Reflections of a 94 percenter

  1. unclebob says:

    There is the issue of legitimizing a party or a person or a process in which one has little or no faith. In my view this is becoming the game changer as most organized political efforts give only lip service to individuals and very little effort is spent in any kind of a broad collaborative manner to consider policy platforms.
    Remembering that nature abhors a vacuum, I think this glaring flaw leaves a huge opening for an alternative. The question is not whether, it is simply, when!

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