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.