Apathy really is boring, it's time to engage

Simon Jackson on the need to reclaim the ballot box.

A remarkable aspect of the recent B.C. election on May 12 was not, necessarily, the result but how few ballots were actually cast.

Just slightly over half the province bothered to vote, despite increased voter registration, five days of advanced polling and good weather on election day.

This continuing erosion of voter participation in Canada and, especially, in B.C. is not a new phenomenon.

However, as we inch closer to the situation where a majority of our population forgoes its democratic right to vote, it is not far-fetched to say the legitimacy of our democracy is being called into question, as University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff has recently suggested.

NDP Leader Carole James on voting day, May 12, 2009. Turnout plunged to an historic low. (Darryl Dyc/Canadian Press)

Consider, for example, Gordon Campbell's victorious Liberal party, which was re-elected with 46 per cent of the popular vote. That is usually considered a strong mandate in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

But when you factor in that only 52 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot — an historic low — Campbell gets to govern with the backing of a mere 24 per cent of voting-age British Columbians.

Death of PR

This is not to take away from the Liberal victory. Love the Liberals or hate them, the system that produced the result is a long-standing Canadian tradition and has been reaffirmed here in not one, but two referendums.

Indeed, four years ago, a referendum to change the way British Columbians vote, to one involving proportional representation, very nearly passed. It missed the threshold (60 per cent of voters) by only one percentage point.

This time, despite a million dollar-plus advertising push, it wasn't even close.

For those here who dislike the outcome but didn't bother to vote, they have effectively supported the status quo and have nothing to complain about.

However, as a society, this type of result should concern us as it cripples the authenticity of our democracy, which is probably why the finger pointing for this latest turnout disaster has now begun.

There is probably ample blame to go round, from apathetic young people who can't be bothered to vote, to endless political spin that demeans and sows intentional confusion, to the political scandals that taint all who run for public office.

Still, I believe the blame game achieves no real gain and that if we are to get serious about this issue we need to recognize that everyone has a hand in perpetuating the problem and all have a role to play in achieving a solution.

Drowning in negativity

Many, it seems, are of the mind that changing public attitude on the importance of voting begins with engaging today's youth. (And many more have little hope that this strategy will succeed.)

Young people of my generation appear to be unmoved by politics. But how many have reached this point because all they hear are negative comments from their parents and teachers and media commentators (like me, sometimes), who point out the flaws of our system rather than accentuating the positives.

If all that today's youth constantly hear is that all politicians are corrupt or that their vote is wasted, why would a young person — equipped with fewer resources and less influence at this stage in their lives — believe that they could make a difference by voting?

This is not an excuse. But one possible root cause for why young people today seem to be staying away from the polling booth in droves. And if we can not address that root cause, then we are going to have great difficulty chipping away at the problem.

Organizations like Apathy is Boring are doing a tremendous job at beginning to get young people to see the positive power of politics and how easy it is to promote change with the democratic tools available to us.

But the reality is that groups like Apathy is Boring need everyone else in Canada to do their part if we are to be truly successful at this. That begins, I believe, with restoring each other's faith in politicians and the political process and, for that to happen, we must all become more political.

Buy a membership

For far too long, it seems to me, we've ceded control of political parties and the mechanisms that create their policies, candidates and leaders to an unaccountable few. And for that, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

In a country of 33 million (23 million eligible voters), only a few hundred thousand are active members of political parties and only they have a real opportunity to shape, through their support and their personal contacts, what the rest of us vote for on election day. To me, that's criminal.

Yes, becoming a member of a political party might require an extra trip somewhere to cast another ballot. Yes, it costs $10 or so to join a party. Yes, it requires selecting a political affiliation. And yes, it can mean putting up with the thunder-stick-clapping crowd at conventions sometimes (though much of this is now taking place online).

Still, with all that is at stake, I believe these are minor inconveniences that far outweigh the importance of having a say in the critical decisions that are made a step or two before the general election.

Also, just because party politics up until now has been run largely as personal fiefdoms of the leaders, intent on funding attack ads and handing out plum jobs to supporters, that doesn't mean that must be the way moving forward. 

Through the power of numbers and the varied, instantaneous tools that the internet provides, average Canadians can have much greater opportunity these days to open up the backrooms and create accountability — if only they become involved. 

I'm not so naïve to believe political party membership is the silver bullet for our electoral turnout woes. But I do believe that those who get involved with political parties have a stronger sense of ownership of the candidates and the process.

As a result, they are more inclined to not just vote but, in a host of ways, defend the process from the negativity and the spin doctors who seem to have taken it over.

Wake-up call

The important thing here is that, until we start utilizing all of the tools afforded us in our democracy, we will continue to be largely uninspired by our options and disappointed by the results.

We are only going to get out of the system what we put into it and, given that so few engage, it is no wonder that young people today essentially give up on politics before they even cast their first vote.

If we are to truly have a societal shift on the importance of voting, it must start with each of us doing our part to break the cycle of cynicism.

The recent B.C. election should be a wake-up call to us all and a reminder that ensuring the health and legitimacy of our democratic process couldn't be more important to the future of Canada and to every citizen that calls this country home.