I am thrilled with the Ontario election results, which has filled me with renewed optimism in the goodness and caring of our society. I have been feeling discouraged about the general turn of towards conservative voting in my province, and the values that come with it, ranging from a mild ‘me first’ mentality to the down-right mean-spiritedness and bigotry which is poison. It would make me so sad that I tried to stay away from political discussions, feeling that I could only concentrate on doing my part when election day came. I am so happy that Ontarians chose a Liberal government with a progressive agenda, the first woman ever elected as Premier, and the first gay person ever to be elected in the English-speaking world! I am smiling today.
In the midst of the happiness, I don’t want to forget that voter turnout was a lousy 52.1%. Almost half of Ontarians didn’t vote. Voter turnout has been on a steady decline in Canada, for all levels of government, for the past 30 years, and there is no indication that this trend is reversing. This doesn’t have to be the case, and should not be accepted as the case. Canada has a history of high political engagement, and in the 1960’s, voter turnout was in the 80% range. Countries around the world vary widely in their voter turnout rates, with Malta being the country with the highest voting rate, at 96-98%. We have so much work to do, in this area of political engagement.
I believe that a true democracy requires active participation from all members of our diverse society. This includes new Immigrants and youth, the two groups who statistically have the lowest rates of voting. Why? We need to uncover the complexities behind this, and strategize to change. I know there are researchers devoted to questions of voter turnout (Myer Siemiatycki being most well-known in Toronto – http://www.ryerson.ca/politics/facultyandstaff/bio_MyerSiemiat.htm), but how can we turn their research findings into action that shifts this statistic? I am not a researcher or expert on the issue of voter turnout, but I am passionate about citizenship engagement. In my mind, people who aren’t voting fall into one of these two reasons:
1. They don’t care / aren’t interested in or understand politics or see the relevance in their lives. They don’t see how their vote counts. They are discouraged by the system, it doesn’t reflect them. They make a conscious decision not to vote.
2. They lead busy stressful lives and worry about the day-to-day, and they can’t priority finding the time to get to a voting station to vote. They face logistical challenges to vote.
#1 is more complex to solve, and these are valid points made by people who aren’t voting. While I have always voted, I have found myself almost not voting because of this viewpoint – I hate the adversarial tone of our political system and parties, and I often don’t relate to the dialogue. It feels like a separate world, not integrated into my daily life. As well, I know the current electoral system is flawed (as I wrote about a few months ago on my blog), and so I don’t always feel like my voice counts. When we truly listen to the voices of our youth, they express this discouragement clearly, as you can read in this editorial in the Globe. Our youth are in fact highly politically engaged, when you look at political engagement as expressed beyond the ballot box, and their levels of engagement and participation are higher compared to the older cohort of Canadians (read this amazing Samara Democracy Report that proves this!). But youth are clearly disengaged from voting, and for the sake of our future, we need to strategize and change this!
#2 feels so obvious to me – WHY IS VOTING NOT ONLINE? We can bank online, why can’t we vote online? In today’s digital world, having to vote with a paper voting card at the local voting station feels archaic. It doesn’t make sense. If voting was online, the website could be advertised through social media channels online and anyone could vote from where they physically are. I don’t understand why this is a multi-step process, where you need to receive a voting card in the mail, find out where your voting station is, and show up with I.D. People are stressed and busy and this feels like an extra job in an already busy and chaotic day.
If, for whatever reason, voting can’t be online, are there not other creative ideas to bring voting to the people, instead of expecting people to carve out time to go and vote? What about a ‘mobile voting station’, to go to apartment building and areas with lower voting turnout? We have mobile libraries and even mobile veggies in Toronto (see this awesome Foodshare project here!), so why can’t we have mobile voting stations?
Seriously, let’s get our thinking caps on and start brainstorming some innovative solutions to engage our community members to vote! Let’s pour over the research, understand the analysis, and put a strategy and workplan together. Over the next four years, let’s invest time, resources and energy into reversing this trend, so that we can be proud of our democracy!