The key to sparking greater voting participation is not Internet gimmicks and more federal programs. Greater self-reliance and better school curricula are the answer.
Even though we appear to be headed for a surge in voting participation in this federal election, results since the 1960s show steady decline in voter turnout. While 75 percent of registered voters voted in the 1984 election, only 61 percent in did 2000, and 58.8 percent did in October 2008 –an all-time low.
A further breakdown shows things to be worse among the young. For voters aged 18-24 the participation estimate is about one third. The numbers are more alarming in some parts of the country, and there is genuine worry that less than a third of folks will vote one generation from now.
To combat the decline, Canada has spent tens of millions in the last two decades funding programs designed to reinvigorate voting, “raise awareness,” register the homeless, excite the young and so forth.
Curiously, participation rates have kept right on dropping as programmes increased, suggesting that such programs are not successful and that there are other factors at play.
Elections Canada intrudes into provincial jurisdiction to provide more “civic education.” Its efforts rest partly on the unidimensional assumption that people need more information. Yet, we live in the age of information. Never has more information been more available with less effort to more people during political campaigns than in the last decade. Jazzing up voting with electronic technologies will not solve the problem either.
The tiny minority of participatory young people hold the key to understanding what’s going on. When asked, they say that they learned about politics from family conversations at home or from an inspiring teacher in school. This is also true for those least likely to vote, the immigrant youth. Not many will mention Elections Canada’s youth programmes.
A shift in culture will take more than state-sponsored youth programmes with punny names. We need a strong core culture of engaged families, and better teachers teaching better programs. We ought to educate the young teaching them history, a subject not formally taught in most provinces in this country, including Alberta. The importance of democratic participation has a context worth learning about and appreciating, and that context will give us some perspective.
Voting is important but it’s not everything –and there is more to political life than just voting. To guilt folks into voting does no good in engaging them, and it may have a backlash effect tilting them to greater dislike of politics.
Politics as an activity may be good for all communities, but let’s open ourselves to the possibility that like hockey or carpentry, writing or farming, politics is not an activity for everyone. It has never been for everyone.
Valid concerns for dropping participation need tempering in the knowledge that no epoch has seen 100 percent participation. In fact the greatest democratic eras in history were times of significant political restriction: Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and the 18th century New England colonies.
It is not my intention to advocate a return to those restrictive times, to abolish Elections Canada, or to abandon the desire to engage young people, but we should examine the assumptions underlying the desire to resolve the ‘problem’ of lower participation. We should ask ourselves if federal encroachment in a provincial field is a price we must urgently pay for greater voter efficiency.
We also erroneously assume that because nearly all official barriers to voting have been removed, everyone should want to vote. We look for hidden obstacles and “structural problems” where there may be none. Many in the southern Alberta riding of Macleod drive 50 kilometres one-way to vote, an obstacle not typically found among apathetic Montrealers or Calgarians.
Having more voters will not result in better politics, as many suggest. Australia, where law compels folks to vote, has necessarily a better participation rate but does not have demonstrably better politics or better leaders. Better politics and better leaders come from better citizens.
In the end, a more activist state has never improved politics. A more involved state may in fact make things worse. More government programs “inspiring” us individually to do our public duty is hardly a way to spark citizen autonomy, a precondition for meaningful political participation of all types, not just voting. On the contrary, it fuels greater dependency on the state and snuffs the vital self-reliance necessary to sound politics.
Let’s teach great history first.