What will it take to bring out voters?
I went on TV last week. Cable 14. That’s a big deal for me because I’m a little bit shy and I don’t speak well in public. But I like to meet challenges head on and with enthusiasm, so I went out and bought a new outfit and stepped into the spotlight. I was asked to be a guest during election night coverage. It was exciting to be part of the action. It was over all too quickly, both my time in the studio and the suspense of the win.
As I’m writing this column, the election returns are coming in over the radio and pundits are dissecting the results and I’m surprised at what I’m hearing: a Liberal majority win. I’m more hopeful at the voter turnout, which although estimated to be lower than the record low of 48 per cent in the 2011 election actually rose a few percentage points to 52 per cent with this election.
That has to be an improvement, no matter the outcome, right?
If there was an election mired in outrage, it was this one. If there was an election where so many issues pulled so many people into the debate, it was this one. If there was an election where the integrity of the governing party has come under question time and time again, it was this one. But somehow, these issues didn’t matter enough to increase participation in any meaningful way. If not all this, then what? I suppose I could be happy, but I’m not feeling as if anyone should be resting on their laurels.
Why aren't more people voting and what can be done about it? Whose problem is this anyway? The state? The schools? The community? The family? We have been bleeding voters by the generation.
Voter turnout in Ontario elections has ranged from a high of 74.4 per cent (1898) to the low of 48 per cent (2011), with large clusterings in the 60 to 69 per cent range. So it would seem that 65 per cent would be a reasonable turnout to expect from an average engaged citizenry. We have achieved close to this number many times in our past, it’s not an unrealistic expectation of our future.
The highs for turnout (70 to 74 per cent) were the first year of Confederation (73.9 per cent), followed by the highest turnout just before the turn of the century in 1898 (74.4 per cent) and carrying through the elections of 1902 and 1905, before dropping to spike again in 1919 (72.6 per cent), then dropping precipitously in the 1920s before rising in the Depression-year elections (74.1 per cent, 71.3 per cent). It wasn’t until 1971, when the voting age was lowered, that turnout hit the 70s again with 73.5 per cent. And it’s been dropping fairly consistently ever since.
It seems, in the big picture, hope and despair drive voter participation; complacency and disengagement lead to mediocre results.
I’ve been having the “do you vote?” discussion with a lot of people since my last column. I wanted to meet this elusive non-voter. I say this because almost everyone I know votes regularly. Almost everyone. I was surprised at those who said they weren’t going to vote. Among the disengaged were the youth, with a troubling number of young women, but also a few professionals. It may be that there is an alarming disenchantment among the youth, which is to be expected to a certain degree, but that we’re losing people who once made the effort is more concerning.
To what do we owe this slight uptick in participation and can we consider it a new beginning of voter engagement? Or is it just a quick flip-over in the roller-coaster of politics? What have we learned from our years of voter inaction and has our flirting with abject indifference, coupled with voter outrage, created a momentum for change?
What I’ve learned from talking to people is that our democratic process is being paralyzed by an antiquated and outmoded system. People have no faith that anything is going to change. Candidates lie. Politics is perceived as corrupt and populated with self-serving egomaniacs. Participation is not worth their time and effort. Then there are the conspiracy theorists, fuelled by Internet malcontents, who argue Agenda 21 and advocate for anarchy and the absence of government. Yikes.
Voter tune-out, rather than a source of shame, carries with it a perverted sense of pride, with people not ashamed of saying they don’t vote before they enumerate the many reasons why not.
To those who got out and took the effort and made your mark … thank you. Let’s keep the conversation going. There’s another election coming right up.
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Margaret Shkimba is a writer who lives in Hamilton, She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can “Friend” her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter (@menrvasofia)