In the wake of Tuesday’s election, the supposed fragile state of Canadian democracy was again the object of concern after voter turnout clocked in at 59.1 per cent.
Some blame the lack of charisma in leaders. Others cite apathy. Or negative campaigns. Or broken promises by the prime minister, which reinforces cynicism about the political class. Such factors likely have an effect, though some, such as the charisma deficit, are a poor excuse not to vote; in a democracy, voters should deliberate more upon policy, competence and aptitude, and less on oratorical flashiness.
But put such explanations aside for the moment and revisit the notion our collective alarms bell should ring. True, Tuesday’s turnout was the lowest percentage ever in any federal election. But it’s not without close precedent.
The highest voter turnout in Canadian history was in 1958, when 79.4 per cent of voters cast ballots and when John Diefenbaker won his smashing majority. Ironically, the next highest turnout was in 1963; that’s when 79.2 per cent of voters flocked to the polls to turf Diefenbaker out of office.
But 1958 and 1963 are arguably aberrations on the high end just as voter turnout this year was an aberration on the low end. Historically, voter turnout floats roughly between the mid-60s and the mid-70s.
For example, in Canada’s first federal election in 1867, voter turnout was 73.1 per cent. Turnout then drifted south and by 1896 (when Wilfrid Laurier became prime minister) only 62.9 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot, a percentage not significantly higher than Tuesday’s turnout.
But even if one thinks that alarm over the 2008 turnout is justified, the question is then what, if anything, can be done?
Everyone has a suggestion. Mine is to have more referendums. Such events are a useful way to concentrate the minds of citizens by giving them an issue, a deadline and a sense of control over at least some public policy.
In 1992, during our last national referendum (on the Charlottetown Accord), turnout was 71.8 per cent. That percentage has never been surpassed in any of the six federal elections that occurred after the 1992 vote.
But maybe I’m mistaken about my preferred remedy as others are about theirs. Maybe we should target the four-out-of-every-10 voters themselves for not casting a ballot.
For example, consider the common complaint that “no party reflects my views.”
That’s precious. In a country with more than 33 million people, and even with five political parties, or 20, it’s unreasonable to think any democratic entity should perfectly reflect our own persona, ethics, priorities, needs and wants. There’s a word for adults who think in such a manner and who have left the crib physically, but apparently not mentally or socially: narcissistic.
Adult life is about recognizing limits, the existence of others, compromise and making imperfect choices because the world cannot and should not reflect us as individuals.
But there’s another reason why adults should cast a ballot even when faced with imperfection: because we can.
Democracy was almost strangled in ancient Greece. When democracy did take root millenniums later in other places, it yet took hundreds of years and epic struggles for even every adult male to obtain suffrage. It took even longer for women and minorities.
In the last century, even the world’s strongest democracies were almost fatally weakened by fascism, nationalism and communism. And over the ages, in order to secure democracy, millions of people have lost their lives or sustained injuries, including hundreds of thousands of Canadian soldiers in multiple wars.
Meanwhile, democratic dissidents in China, Cuba, Burma and elsewhere still pay a price in pain, imprisonment and sometimes in blood in their attempts to gain a democracy, or in Zimbabwe and Russia, to have their vote mean something more than mere advice.
Democracy has been and still is costly. Insofar as one thinks voter turnout is a cause for concern, there’s no need to pander to those who don’t vote for reasons related to narrow self-obsession. Doing so only reinforces their narcissism.
Beyond a sliver of Canadians who might not vote for reasons of conscience (Quakers, for example), the proper response to the vast majority of the 41 per cent who don’t vote and do so with the flimsiest of excuses is this: That would be your fault.