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.