Getting Skeptical about Voting

Canada recently had a federal election that for the first time in over 11 years resulted in a majority government. It was a historic election for a number of reasons. Not only did the Conservative Party of Canada win the most seats in the House of Parliament, but the New Democrats also made ground, becoming the official opposition for the first time in their party’s history.

As with all elections there were a number of key issues that this vote would circulated around. Yet despite so many important points, only 61% of eligible voters actually voted.

This is a minor improvement since Canada’s last election in 2008 when only 59.1% voted. Although it should be noted that these numbers don’t include those unregistered who registered on the day and voted.

Why is this relevant to a skeptic? Why should we care how many people vote? The answer is that democracy, our ability to chose who governs and sets policy is of vital importance to skeptics and free thinkers. Health policy, like whether or not alternative medicine is integrated into our health care or if naturopaths are able to prescribe medicine, is decided by our elected officials. If we don’t elect politicians who understand the importance of these issues, we could seriously jeopardize public health.

If we elect politicians who believe that global warming is a conspiracy, we’re unlikely to see any attempt to safe guard the environment. Likewise, if we elect someone who believes in creationism over evolution, what can we expect to happen to funding for sound, evidence-based, science?

Democracy is also vital in that if we elect politicians who believe in free inquiry, free speech and free expression, we can safeguard our society from fear mongering, intolerance, and instability.

Surely more Canadians besides skeptics consider these issues important. But if that’s true, why is voter turn-out so low? Why do nearly half of (eligible to vote) Canadians don’t care enough to take part?

This isn’t just a phenomena in Canada either. Voter turnout has been remarkably low in other countries as well. In 2008 voter turnout was only 57.37% in the United States during the Presidential election. In Britain, voter turnout was at 65.1% in 2010, an improvement over the 61.4% in 2005 and the dismal 59.4% the election before that.

Some would say that voter apathy is the reason we see such small voter turnout numbers. The apathy in this case means that a large majority of the electorate simply don’t care who gets elected.  The implication is that voters simply don’t care enough to follow through with voting. For example, they’re tired after work and don’t want to go down to a polling station.

I’m skeptical of this notion of voter apathy. Recently a very good TED talk has been going viral and I’d like to share it. Please have a look.

Dave Meslin does a good job pointing out some of the misconceptions of voter apathy.  Meslin puts most of the blame on the bureaucracy that is either intentionally or unintentionally designed to discourage participation.

He shows a sample of a document from the government and compares it to the method the private sector uses when its wants your attention. He also discusses the role of money and funding in getting important issues to the forefront of voters consciousness. He also points out the media seems to have a double standard when it comes to reporting political issues compared to non-political issues. The later is often presented in a who, what, where, when format. The former however, doesn’t seem to get the same treatment. Issues are presented but there’s no mention on how to get involved. No websites for follow up, and no information on when and where any debates are. This doesn’t allow the reader to properly engage with the issue at hand.

He also talks about some of the cultural views on leadership and what it means to consider oneself a leader or to how you might consider another person a leader.

Meslin also points out the blandness that has affected the political parties and politicians who run for office.  Determined to win, they often reduce their platforms so much as to be generic and difficult to distinguish from other parties.

Of all of Meslin’s points, as well as my own opinions, I think we should highlight the following:

  • Our political bureaucracy doesn’t encourage participation. During the 2011 election I worked at my polling station and while the bureaucracy on paper wasn’t too bad, I did notice the frustration of the people voting. They had to show ID several times, they often had to stand in line for up to 15mins, and any error on the part of election officials usually added more of a delay to their attempts to vote.
  • The media doesn’t devote enough effort to make politics participatory.
  • Political parties don’t make enough effort to represent their opinions.
  • Our political system, what we call first past the post, exacerbates all these problems.
  • Because these (and other) problems, the public has become cynical of democracy. Many feel that voting is irrelevant and no matter who you elect, you’re issues won’t be addressed. Just like the song “Won’t get fooled again” by The Who, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”
  • Political issues need to stop being presented (by media and politicians) in sports terminology. Saying things like “who won this issue” or presenting the material as though political debates were wrestling matches polarizes the electorate and distracts from the facts of what has been done? What is it doing? Does it work? And what does it mean for the people of this country?


In my opinion, none of these problems are insurmountable. In fact, by applying our skepticism and critical thinking, we can solve these issues.

Bureaucracy can be avoided by changing the tone with which we present information. Literally, by taking a page from the private sector. Instead of a seven page document that you need an accountant to explain to you, create a document that a 10-year old could understand.

In terms of voting, develop voting machines that allow for a faster and easier time while voting.  Extend the voting period from one day to two. Perhaps a Friday and a Saturday or a Sunday and a Monday. Develop a less intrusive way of ascertaining someone’s eligibility to vote. Asking someone to show two pieces of ID makes the voter feel like a criminal and not an integral part of our democracy.

The media needs to make sure that every article regarding a debate or political issue has information where the reader can follow up on and get involved.

Political parties need to stop relying on polls and statistics, which they can’t do under the first past the post system. In a normal election you have a choice between candidates in your riding and you elect one person per riding. However if 45% of the people vote for candidate A and 55% vote for candidate B, 45% of that riding gains no representation. From Fair Vote Canada:

” [A] Winner-take-all voting systems provide representation only for those voters who support the most popular party in their riding. The political views of other voters are not represented… Usually the majority of voters cast votes that elect no one. In the 2008 federal election, more than seven million citizens cast ineffective votes… A party winning only 40% of the votes may gain 60% or more of the seats and 100% of the power. A party winning 30% of the votes could find itself with only 10% of the seats”

This problem continued into the election in 2011. Despite gaining only 39.6% of the popular vote, the Conservative party of Canada won 54.2% of the seats in the House of Commons. Paradoxically, the NDP won 30.9% of the popular vote but only gained 33.1% of the seats in the House of Commons. This doesn’t make any sense. Why is one group of voters (39.6%) gaining 54.2% of the seats while another group (30.9%) gaining only 33.1% of the seats?

The total numbers for seats won in the 2011 federal election were as follows.

CON 167, NDP 102, LIB 34, BQ 4, GREEN 1

If the seats were won in proportion to the votes that were cast, the numbers would look like this:

CON 122, NDP 95, LIB 59, BQ 19, GREEN 13

There are several viable voting systems that Canada could use instead of first past the post, as skeptics and critical thinkers, we need to lend our support to a system that produces the most democratic results and is not antiquated and based on tradition.

A system like Single transferable vote or Preferential voting would allow for voters to elect candidates in such a way that you won’t see 36% of the electorate giving a party 54% of parliament.  While these voting methods will commonly produce minority governments, politicians would know going into office that they will be judged not on how hard they stick to their proverbial guns but rather that political office will involve compromise and consensus building.

Instead of focusing on how different the political parties are from each other and how the important it is for one party to have a majority so they can pass whatever legislation they want; the parties would be forced to convince voters that they can work together and find common ground. Parties that did this would be rewarded in elections and parties that failed would get less votes.

The impact would mean far less pandering and making over-blown promises to a cynical electorate. Of course everyone wants generic things like “making Canada strong” and “building a future” etc. Words like “taxes” and “spending” and “strengthen” no longer hold any real meaning in today’s political landscape. They’ve become buzz words politicians uses to convince voters. But with a different voting system, such ramblings are meaningless.

Perhaps this would cut down on the number of dissatisfied voters out there. Certainly it wouldn’t bring everyone back into the fold. With so many scandals like Watergate and the Schreiber affair too many voters believe all politicians to be crooks and liars.

There is also a vein of paranoia propagated by those disillusioned with social issues like the failure of the G20 nations to solve world hunger or the UN to prevent war. In addition, many subscribe to the notion of a power-elite. A small sect of super powerful leaders in business, military and political arenas who have access to resources that ordinary citizens simply do not nor will ever have access to. While it’s obvious that there are some extraordinary powerful and wealthy individuals who control far too much influence in the world, I’m hesitant to accept much of this sociological theory. Far too much of it borders on conspiracy theories and mumblings of the Illuminati.

Finally, by creating a system of voting that empathises fairness of representation for the voter, plus a system of consensus building for the politicians, perhaps the combative nature of politics might dissipate. The media would face pressure to stop portraying politics like a contact sport and those politicians who like to imply armageddon if their opponents get legislation passed might feel less keen to voice this vitriolic rhetoric for the purpose of a sound bite.

I believe this is possible. It will require political will from politicians but also from the electorate. As skeptics we must make every effort to engage with our democracy.

15 Responses to “Getting Skeptical about Voting”

  1. Kim Hebert says:

    Well done. I don’t quite agree with you here, though: “Develop a less intrusive way of ascertaining someone’s eligibility to vote. Asking someone to show two pieces of ID makes the voter feel like a criminal and not an integral part of our democracy.”

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have to prove your identity to vote. I didn’t feel like a criminal just because I had to show ID (one piece at our poll, btw). I felt like they were protecting the election from double votes and other illegal voting. But in any case, what other systems have been implemented elsewhere that are “less intrusive”? (I find that phrase is a bit loaded, as it assumes that our system is inherently intrusive.)

  2. I agree with much of your post, especially the part the media plays in the political discourse. Many issues are complex, and the media reduces them to ‘sound bites’ or repeats the parties’ stands without further analysis.

    I agree with Kim, that showing ID is not an impediment to voting, nor would I think that 15 minutes of standing in line is either. Many people wait longer than that for their morning coffee.

    Here in PEI, we have some of the highest voter turnouts in the country. Even here, many people say that they expect any politician to line their pockets and those of their friends.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but it certainly seems that a great many people take our democracy for granted.

  3. Kelly says:

    I also agree that we have to do something to change the system. And as much as I agree that showing two pieces of i.d. (I suspect that 2 pieces may have been required if you weren’t already on the voter list) shouldn’t be an impediment to voting, it probably is to some people.
    For myself, although I voted, I had a hard time coming up with the ‘who’ to vote for. I disagreed strongly on a main policy or ethics point for every candidate in my riding. It is pretty pathetic when you have to go into the voting booth with a clothespin on your nose.

  4. quarksparrow says:

    It bothers me the extent to which low voter turnout is painted as a voter apathy issue, when it’s much more apparent that it’s a voter frustration issue. The left has no clear choice, the right has no choice at all, and everyone who supports a trailing candidate is left feeling that, even if they do vote, FPTP ensures that their vote counts for nothing in the end.

    Give us what we want — a House that reflects the constituency.

  5. Ethan Clow says:

    @Kim, yes I admit its kind of loaded to say showing ID is intrusive. However that seemed to be the biggest complaint we got from people at our polling station. I really think that if a voter gets a card from the government with their name and address and voter information on it and they bring it to the polling station and then they get asked for more ID, it really bugs them.

    I think that if we can make the voting “process” as pleasant (or at the least, less frustrating) as possible, people would feel more inclined to come out. Standing in line for 15mins is okay when getting a coffee, since at the end of those 15mins you get your coffee, but voting is a right and people hate standing in line for rights.

    • Kim Hebert says:

      The same card that explains what people need to bring with them? :) It took me about one and a half minutes to vote, but if I had to wait 15 minutes I would have been fine with that. Annoyance with a mere 15 minutes of wait says a lot about what people are willing to devote to the decisions made for their country… But again, what other system might work better? And how long would people take to find fault with that, too?

      I don’t think IDs and lines are the problem, I think they are symptoms.

  6. After my earlier posting, I remembered another thing about voting. There are actually two options to vote besides the polling station on that one day. There advance poll always runs for 3 days. You can vote at any Elections Canada office throughout most of the campaign. You don’t even need to be in your own riding to vote at Elections Canada. Both will likely be further away than your local poll, but you have more time to get there.

    There are numerous issues around voter apathy, but I really don’t think the act of voting is one of them.

  7. Jason says:

    I am not sure if I want my political parties to always be bi-partisan, always trying to find common ground. There are many times when I want a clear division of policy, and thus be given choices. Having the parties blend into one consensus quite often seems to be giving me a one party system.

    As far as voter turnout …. to me that is an interesting discussion as I would love to see more people engaged but believe quite strongly that democracy is best when based on an informed consent and therefore, if a voter is voting for no other rational reason other than to vote, it is not worth a coin toss and I would prefer they stay home.

    Final thought, I would love to see more questions from the skeptical and rational squads out there of the individuals running in elections …. put their feet to the fire. But I often wonder in Canada at the federal level, how much weight the average voter bases their vote upon the local candidate versus the PM level, or overall political party or policy preference. That one federal vote represents so much that I often wonder how much a local Q & A of candidates actually sways voter preference.

  8. Ethan Clow says:

    @peicurmudgeon Yes, I forgot to mention advance polls. Apparently, and I can’t remember where I heard this, the advance polls were the busiest they’ve been a while. More people are using them to avoid the rush of voting on election day. I believe the success of advance polls are a good indication that more people would vote if voting time was extended.

    Some countries use different methods to woo or encourage voting. In Australia you face a small fine for not voting. I have heard discussion of perhaps offering a tax receipt for those who do vote as a way to encourage participation. As it stands, people who are not informed vote now. And I still doubt that the reason people don’t vote is that they’re uninformed.

  9. ConsentualSlave says:

    Despite his bonds the modern slave is convinced of his citizenship.. The illusion of choice and free determination is fueled by the ability to vote and freely elect those who will conduct his affairs. When it comes down to deciding the society we want to live in, is there really any fundamental difference between the Social Democrats and the Populist Right in France, between Democrats and Republicans in the United States, between Labor and Conservatives in the United Kingdom? There is no opposition, because the main political parties agree on one essential thing: the conservation of the present mercantile society.

    None of the political parties that enter into power question the commodities dogma. And those political parties with media complicity monopolize the airwaves. They squabble about trite matters ensuring the status quo. They fight over who will hold the seats that the mercantile parliamentary offers. Those petty disputes are disseminated by the media as a distraction from the critical debate about the election of the society we want to live in. Appearance and triviality eclipse the confrontation of ideas. None of this resembles, not even from afar, a democracy.

    Real democracy is defined, firstly, by the mass participation of citizens in the governance of community affairs. It is direct and participative. The popular assembly and the permanent dialogue about the organization of a common life are Democracy’s most authentic expressions. Representative and parliamentarian forms of government usurp the name of democracy, limiting the power of citizens to the simple act of voting, that is, to nothing. Deciding between light grey and dark grey is not a real election. Parliamentarian’s seats are mainly occupied by the dominant economic class, be it the right or the pseudo leftist social democrats.

    Power is not to be conquered, it is to be destroyed. It is tyrannical by nature, whether exercised by a king, a dictator or an elected president. The only difference with the parliamentarian “democracy” is that the modern slave has the illusion of choosing the master he will obey. The vote has made him an accomplice to the tyranny that oppresses him. He is not a slave because masters exist; masters exist because he elects to remain a slave.

    The dominant system is defined thus by the omnipresence of its mercantile ideology. It occupies every space and every sector of life. It calls us to “produce, sell, consume, and accumulate”. The dominant system has reduced all human interaction to dry mercantile relationships and considers our planet a mere commodity. Our duty is to be servile. The only recognized right is the right to private property. The only god it worships is money.

    The right to appear is monopolized by those in power. The stage is reserved for the men and speeches that uphold the dominant ideology. Critical thinking is drowned out in a sea of media that determine what is right and what is wrong, what can and cannot be seen.

    The omnipresence of ideology, the worship of money, the media’s bias, the absence of democratic pluralism, the lack of a visible opposition, the will to transform mankind and all the world in its image, and repression in all its forms. Behold the true face of modern totalitarianism. The majority calls it “liberal democracy”, it is time to call it what it truly is: a totalitarian mercantile system.

    Mankind, society and the entire planet serve this ideology. The totalitarian mercantile system has achieved what no other totalitarian systems could: hegemony over the world through its ideology. Today, exile is impossible.

  10. Deniz says:

    I can’t believe you support voting machines. Really?

    Have you not heard how insecure and succeptible to election fraud and error voting machines are?

    Why on earth would we need voting machines in Canada? You have one piece of paper, you mark an X. Boom, done. Who needs a freaking voting machine for that?

    • Ethan Clow says:

      Voting machines may have poorly made in the past but that doesn’t mean they’ll be poorly made forever. They have been used quite successfully in civic elections here in BC for a while now. I was surprised by the number of people who incorrectly marked their ballots. Every time someone does that we have to throw away that vote. But I’m more interested in voting machines for their speed.


  1. [...] an aside, check out this SkepticNorth article on voter apathy and skeptical voting. There is an amazing TED video on road blocks to [...]

  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.