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Friday, March 07, 2008

Low Voter Turnout Will Not Be Fixed by Tinkering


We see the losing parties in the Alberta election calling for electoral reform because of low participation rates. Any regular reader of this Blog knows I harp and carp about voters showing up. I also agree that while voting is a “duty” of citizenship and a right as well – it is not a legal obligation. Just as there is freedom of religion in Canada…there is freedom from religion too.
I saw a sign on a mailbox in Edmonton during this election that said it all. It was not the usual
“No Flyers” but rather the more disturbing message of “Don’t Ask Me To Participate.” That is not an unreasonable position to take these days - for many reasons – but it is emblematic of a sad state of affairs.

I too am saddened by the low turnout in Alberta and I share some embarrassment over it too. I do not bemoan this reality as if it were the fault of the voter. It is not. It is the fault of the political class, and political parties in particular. The “fix” is not tinkering with the system like preferential ballots, proportional representation or transferrable votes. The fix is for politics to become relevant to people’s lives. We need to adjust the balance between rural and urban seat in Alberta to be more equitable and that will happen by 2010 – well before the next election.

The big issues for me is how ignorant our citizens are about politics and civics in Canada – and apparently even more so in Alberta. My definition of ignorance is not pejorative but more of an adaptive challenge. Ignorance to me is the absence of all that stuff which could be learned that would be helpful - IF it were learned. This ignorance is masked by excuses for not voting that are mostly of the “my dog ate my homework” variety But the real question is why do people have to make excuses – lame or otherwise?

Low voter participation is not a systemic or an election process issue…it is an ignorance and education issue. Citizens have large gaps in their knowledge of the place, importance and implications of politics in their day to day lives. As a result the rationally conclude politics has little relevance to them. The bickering and belligerence they see in the television news clips coverage of Question Period is not something any reasonable person would respect nor likely see as relevant.

I do not want voters showing up at polls who are uninformed and indifferent and only “participate” because they may face a fine or not be able to renew their drivers’ license. I want informed engaged citizens who value democracy and see a positive role for government and want to have a say in their individual and collective future – and not only at election time.


If we do not start to have politics that are relevant and engaging to citizens we open ourselves up to all kinds of problems from corruption and demagoguery to despair with a disintegration of our sense social cohesion and common purpose.

The world is run by those who show up and those who don’t are mostly content to delegate their democratic rights to those who do get informed and engage…so be it. Political parties, politicians and leaders and the media need to get the gamesmanship out of the process and need to start helping educate the citizens about politics and how they can engage.

There is lots of work to do and it will take time because citizen’s ignorance of the political system has many sources. They include convention and habit, isolation, fear, uncertainty, rationalization, complexity, limits of culture, willful ignorance, belief in an “infallible ideology “, conventional success, geocentricism and constraints of circumstances – just to name a few.


So let’s not get trapped into tinkering with the tools of election processes and thinking that we can fix the citizen engagement situation. The disengagement and dissatisfaction of rational citizens in the politics of our times is not going to be resolved with such superficial solutions.


Democracy to survive and thrive needs an informed, engaged and effectual citizenry. Our political institutions are not fulfilling their responsibilities to the citizenry, their true political masters. This is because they have descended into a gamesmanship and media manipulation mentality.

This predominant adversarial gamesmanship kind of politics that dominates today is merely confirms to rational citizen that our key governing institutions are largely irrelevant and clearly impotent at dealing effectively with the real world concerns of the citizenry. Why would anyone with half a brain and a modicum of self respect want to show up, engage and encourage this kind of behavior that is the basis of our current political culture?


It is not the system that is the problem. It’s the combination of citizen ignorance of politics caused mostly by a stupid “modern” political culture that is the root cause of low voter turnout.

11 comments:

  1. I don’t know Ken, you can find a lot of information linking the characteristics of our First-Past-the-Post electoral system directly to Canadians not voting. Regardless of whether you won or lost this election, you have to recognize that this level of voter turnout is a problem. Rather than assuming that it is a sign of contentment, let's ask the people of Alberta why they aren’t voting. Furthermore, why don’t we ask Albertans how they feel about their electoral system? Let's create a citizen’s assembly, asking the citizens of this province, whether they are happy with their electoral system and if not, what can be done to make it better.

    That should be right up your (as well your party's and leader's) alley being progressives.

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  2. I agree Avi - we need hard data not anecdotal tripe on this issue of why our political institutions and activities are not connecting with citizens.

    Citizen’s assembly is one way - there are others too.

    Definitely worth exploring.

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  3. lowering voter turnout is a world phenomenon, not just Canada's, and not just limited to first-past-the-post. Look at Germany's system, in ways similar to Ontario's MMP proposal, yet their turnout in 2005 was the lowest since the 1940s.

    Nonetheless, I agree that we need to engage citizens through ways other than simple 'tinkering'. Tinkering is all well and good, but can't be a reactive response to voter turnout - it needs to be well thought out and subject to logical and political rigour before it's implemented. As you said, a Citizens' Assembly would be an appropriate response.

    There are likely other responses as well that aren't knee-jerk reactions, and everything we as political 'junkies' can do to help it through information and grassroots actions, all the better

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  4. Low turnouts are not a problem per sé, but combined with self-selected voters it means we're not getting an accurate representation of the population's wishes. 41% is a HUGE sample, but since it's not a random sample, it is hard to extract any meaning out of it.

    I think a good compromise would be to make voting mandatory -- but for a 1% random selection of the population, who would have the option to vote "spoiled ballot".

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  5. 300Baud - I thought the Rhinos were way to quiet in the campaign..nice to see them (you ;~) emerge afterwards at least...

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  6. Chris2:19 pm

    I agree with you that the system is not to blame. There are many reasons why the average person won't waste 15 seconds thinking about politics, not the least of which is the ridiculous behaviour most see if they watch question period on any given day.



    People have to get excited. They have to be inspired. Whether or not a politician will make a difference in the everyday lives of an electorate is not the issue. We all know it is extremely difficult to affect real, true and noticeable change once in power. What is important is the possibility of change and the attraction to someone carrying that powerful message with style.



    I look at Obamamania and for the first time in my generation I see people truly interested in politics. Will Obama change America? Looking at his policy deck its hard to see a fundamental shift. Take Iraq... I'm guessing American soldiers will still be dying 4 years into his (possible) presidency. But he inspires people. He has true charisma and he has style... people will turn the tv on to hear him speak. That is what grabs people's attention more than anything else.



    His campaign is nothing short of incredible. The message is simple and it's positive. It's also baseless but it connects!! Guys like Stelmach and Taft are beyond dull. They don't connect with mass audiences and that more than anything else leaves people uninterested.

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  7. It would be interesting to have a citizen's assembly - but geez, how to select who gets to speak there? I wonder if Albertans who feel disengaged from the political process would participate in such a forum.

    And what if, in a survey of why Albertans didn't vote, we discover they don't know why they didn't vote?

    I've had the good fortune to have lived in China for the past 4 years, and have felt the excitement that Chinese people have for their country that is, for the time being, rising - and allowing them to achieve their dreams in the process.

    When I'm in Canada, I don't feel that at all. When I'm here, I hear about the "good old days" of the 60s and 70s. I feel here that citizens take so much for granted and that they are owed good jobs, cheap deals, good medical service, free education, etc and all the other aspects of high quality of life that we enjoy without thinking.

    It's like Canadians are living in a dream - maybe their grandparents' dream - and there's nothing else to dream; nothing else to work for - and they have been living there long enough that they might have forgotten that they have to wake up sometime.

    In a place where people get jobs simply because they feel they're owed them; in a place where people don't understand how lucky they are to have health care at all; in a place where going to Sears, Future Shop, and the leasing desk at the Chevy dealership for a few hours and with a little money can bring us up to date with all the fashionable magazines - I think people aren't looking for a vision. How could it be any better than it already is?

    I feel like people here would be much happier to tie the province up like an income trust and let the managers help us milk her 'til she's dry.

    How can politics compete with living the dream?

    I fear it would take brave and radical thinking and actions - or some sort of wide-ranging disaster - to change this state we find ourselves in.

    In the meantime, why not force people to vote, even if they can check the "vote by proxy" box? At least they'll have to find the polling station, and might think along the way about the names they see messing up the street sides.

    And maybe mandatory trips to China for people to remember what national excitement means, and how damned lucky they are to have health care.

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  8. ...maybe it's the reverse culture shock leashing out...that was a bit of a rant, wasn't it...

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  9. It would be interesting to have a citizen's assembly - but geez, how to select who gets to speak there? I wonder if Albertans who feel disengaged from the political process would participate in such a forum.

    I believe that in BC and Ontario the participants of the Citizen's Assembly were randomly selected. Of course, given that we are talking about Alberta I'm sure the PC Party Association would compile a list of suitable candidates and forward it on to Elections Alberta....

    Counterproductive? I know, but this government has me feeling pretty cynical as of late.

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  10. A short, rotund and very rude man taught me how useless political discourse is. Luckily, I learned better - but many people my age did not.

    I can't remember the guy's name. (I think he was premier after Getty, but before the current fellow)






    While Mr. Stelmach may be cleaning up much of Klein's mess, the damage that King R did to democracy within Alberta may be beyond repair.

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  11. Anonymous10:32 pm

    There is nothing complicated about the low turnout - weak leaders with no inspiring vision!

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