FEATURE: Jeff Mahoney takes on Rob Ford, school gyms & other election peculiarities
Columnist Jeff Mahoney takes on the idiosyncracies of municipal elections, from the odds of Hamilton ever facing a local version of Rob Ford, to the gyms and halls we all end up in. His reasons why voters maybe just don’t want to vote are funny, but perceptive. If you have never read this popular Hamilton Spectator writer, go to it. Exclusive to the SpecVotes blog.
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It gets harder every election to feel earnest about democracy, assuming it was ever possible to feel earnest about democracy to start with.
Especially when it comes to municipal elections. (And please stay with me because I’m going to get to Rob Ford very soon.)
First of all, at least for the municipals, most of us stay home. Way most of us. Average turn-out among eligible voters for municipal elections reminds me of my Grade 11 chemistry mark – 38 per cent. So how seriously can we take the results?
I shouldn’t say most of us stay home. I should say most of you. I’ll vote, fates allowing; I always have, but it will be a monstrous inconvenience. And when the voting takes place in a high school gym, as it often does, the setting invariably brings back memories of humiliation on the pommel horse. In too tight ‘70s track shorts.
I vote, not because I’m better than anyone else, but because I’m worried that if I don’t, I will be personally responsible for the voter turn-out percentage slipping down to two per cent. That would remind me not only of the watery milk I drink but of the typical return on investment I get with my stock broker, Johnny “Your Call Is Important To Me” Sludge.
I mean, I can’t very well NOT vote. Isn’t the right to vote precisely what many of our ancestors gave their lives to protect in two world wars? Wouldn’t NOT voting dishonour their sacrifice?
Actually, no. Those wars were fought to defend larger democratic stakes, like the right to vote in federal elections. The specific right to vote in municipal elections was defended in the lesser known Battle of Enduring Truth, fought between by-law enforcement officers and parking commissionaires in 1884. There was no loss of life. Eight Band-aids were issued.
Still. The principle remains.
Let me set out for you a typical voting day scenario, just on the off chance you might be showing up in October.
You go into the polling station. If it’s not a school gym, perhaps it’s an area church, synagogue, kingdom hall, day care or other temple of someone’s personal belief aura, all of which I validate as is my obligation under the Charter of Loving Everybody. And if I happen to look into the sanctuary and there’s a big wall hanging of a cannabis plant over the altar, well, who am I to judge?
It’s always the same. You try to find your name on the voter list and you are stricken by a failure of memory. Did I register? It doesn’t matter. If you are not bleeding from the eyes and ritually holding a dead chicken by the neck, they will assume you’re okay and let you vote. I mean, it’s a municipal election. There’s tumbleweed blowing through the hall
You notice, as you do in all elections, be they municipal, provincial, federal or inter-galactic legislative synod, that there are irregularities on the voting list.
“Sorry,” you say to the Elections Hamilton official who is crossing off your name, “I can’t help but notice that Rocco Magellan is on there.”
“Yeeeeesssss?” comes the sepulchral response of the official, waiting for the penny to drop.
“Well, I can’t help but saying, he’s dead. As are seven other people on the list.”
Democracy. The only system of government in which dead people have a say. And, truth be told, they are often so much better informed than the live legitimate ones who vote for people like . . . I told you I’d be getting to Rob Ford.
Anyway, so what?
Dead people vote. Democracy is corrupt. Districts are gerrymandered. Votes are purchased. Chads are blocked. Robocalls get made. Robocalls?
How can you take democracy seriously?
I can somehow get past all that. But what convinces me that it’s farce is the realization that, in the booth beside me . . . that idiot Pickersgill from the Lock Your Doors Society.
He gets to vote? Oh, look at him. The man is a standing pool of toilet water, a walking/breathing obstructed chad.
So you have to cast a vote, just to countermand his. But you don’t really feel very good about it.
Is that what the great struggles of democratic liberty, like the American Revolution, were fought for, those titanic contests, 200, 300 years ago, for the freedom of all? Well, almost all – not blacks, of course, or women, or, let’s see, aboriginals, people with no property, Catholics, Jews. Well, okay, universal freedom for hardly anybody.
Most of us are out of our depth in the voting station. By all rights we should be home working on our avatars in Second Life or feeding our livestock in Farmville.
Because when most people hold the little pencil over the menu of choices, they have no idea what they’re doing. Local issues? One-way streets? Police board roulette, stadium construction? Who can tell LRT from LSD, DDT, STD or GST. OMG. So many issues, so much conflicting “expertise” to try to hold in your brain if you’re going to talk and vote credibly.
Most voters just cling to any scrap of vague familiarity when they come to make up their minds. “Hmm, what’s this name? Pol Pot? Wasn’t he an answer on Jeopardy once? I’ll vote for you then, Pol. How bad can he be?”
That might be just how Rob Ford – I told you I’d get to him – gets re-elected, if he does. Voters will recognize the name.
But not just the name. The name will trigger memories of the hilarious, adorable antics. The eating habits. The crack video. Did he, didn’t he? We knew he did but how would he explain . . . oh, a drunken stupor! Wonderful. He singlehandedly revived the vogue of that almost obsolete phrase.
And what a backflip of rationalization. A drunken stupor? To adapt a line from Leo Rosten, it’s like murdering your parents and blaming it on being an orphan.
The latest episode, in the fast-food restaurant, makes you wonder – if he acts that way in the “guardedness” of a public situation, what must he be like when his behaviour is “unguarded” in the privacy of his own home? He must burst out of his shirt like the Incredible Hulk, although, come to think of it he’s always kind of bursting out of his shirt and I don’t think he’s been able to do up that top button since 1988.
The man is whaling. He drinks more than most university engineering departments. He’s got anger management issues, narcissistic personality disorder, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, compulsive behaviour disorder and probably bad breath. He’s a walking, reeling one-stop diagnostic chart. Utterly out of control.
And so how does the ever-so sophisticated city of Toronto react. They say, “That’s the mayor for us!!” And they give him the keys to the car, then fasten their seatbelts and assume the airplane crash position.
I don’t think Hamilton would ever elect someone like Rob Ford. We’re already so cynical. We spread our bad voting decisions out over many generations and equally across a large selection of candidates.
Then again, what city doesn’t screw up? Look at some of the mayors. Montreal. Washington D.C. Rob Ford is just the latest and perhaps most extreme shudder in democracy’s ongoing nervous breakdown.
Democracy might not be the best form of government for us, considering that we have only been out of our caves for about 15 minutes. Long enough to transistorize video cameras so efficiently that they fit into a cell phone. Not long enough to think of anything better to do with those cameras than embarrass drunk people.
Here’s the catch 22. There are good, wise leaders out there. They’re the ones we need to vote for. But if they’re willing to run, willing to become sullied by this awful process, they can’t be good and wise. It’s like Yossarian’s dilemma – you can only get out of the army if you’re crazy, but if you want to get out of the army you can’t be crazy.
No wonder voters don’t want to vote. The good news, though, is that the act of voting in a representative democracy is like the sting of a bee. It is our only power and it vanishes in the using. We perish politically the moment we vote (at least for the term of office) and someone else gets to have power for us. We can go home and not think any more about it. Until they crash the car.
And at least in a democracy you can say any damned thing you want about your stupid leaders and your head doesn’t end up in the decapitation bucket, unless you’re in the Harper cabinet. Yes, we voted for him too. Oh, well.
So, in this year of 2014, with the holy sacrament of a vote looming up before us, I wish you a wish.