Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rock the (non)Vote

So it turns out that only 59% of eligible voters actually bothered to show up at the polls. What gives?

Pundits say people are "tired" of going to the polls. Is that it? Tired? How can we use the word "tired" regarding something we do every two to four years for a couple minutes is at a time? That can't be it.

Is it "voter apathy"? No doubt there is a good deal of apathy involved here, but when we say that I think we are also implying that these non-voters actually don't care about the election; that they are an offense to those who have fought for our freedom; that they are a disgrace to democracy.

I don't know about that. What's worse: the person who doesn't follow politics, feels uninformed, and doesn't vote, or the equally-in-the-dark person who does?

I would be in favour of mandatory voting. Charge someone a small fee on their income tax if they don't vote or something. Call it a tax break for those that do vote, I don't care. I think that would be alright. But I also suggest we look for other explanations and reactions to the poor voter turnout.

Sure, voting is our basic right, privilege, and responsibility, but so is the absentee ballot. And doesn't the absentee ballot say something fairly loudly (although not clearly)? I had to chuckle when one news reporter was asking a university student why they didn't vote and they said they didn't feel they had access to the information they needed. The reporter was beside herself with shock. "What? With the internet, radio, newspapers, and television?"

But I think it makes some sense. We have information overload; we don't trust institutions or politicians to inform us accurately; and we aren't even sure there is truth to be had beyond each person's opinion. And sure, the information is all probably out there somewhere, but you have to find it.

Television is built on sound-bytes, caricatures, and repetition. You don't get your information there. Even the debates are centered around offering tidbits for popular consumption. We probably shouldn't fault TV reporters too much for this. That is just the way TV is. Radio is better, and newspapers are better, but they require a fair amount of time and commitment to get our minds around the opposing views. Perhaps we should take the effort, but let's not pretend it is easy. And sure, it is all there on the Internet, but where do you look? Who do you trust for the information? You can't just read one article about the economy, or health care, or whatever---you have to read four or five for each. My (non-voting) friend who I was talking to last night explained that he feels like between him and the politician, it is he who has to do most of the work. That may sound ridiculous to the news pundit or the politician, but I think it is a decent point, actually.

I have a brother in politics, and I learn more from a five minute frank conversation with him than I've learned from hours and hours of listening to the media. He cuts to the chase and tells me what the issue is in plain language and explains why his MP approaches it the way he does. He gives me hard information about how the details shake down. I don't feel like that is easy to get unless you know someone behind the scenes.

I voted. I also ran a polling station and was fairly moved at various points of the day watching my neighborhood all stream through the doors in a low-key but meaningful celebration of their common freedom. But as a voter I must admit that I don't have half a clue what the person I voted for will do for our country. What is she going to do about health care? The economy? War? Taxes? Social services? etc. Part of me can understand leaving it up to the rest of the populace to decide. As long as the polling beforehand is telling me that my riding is a fore-gone conclusion, why bother?

Of course, if the voter turnout gets too low we've got a problem. If too many of us forgo our right we are leaving it up to the "intelligentsia" or the "activists" to do our work for us, and we are one step away from a dictatorship of the elite. But isn't that how it is already? Most of us get our information from the same sound-byte-saturated sources. Ours is a semi-dictatorship of popular media.

And so it seems to me that the 41% who did not vote have said something. Imagine if a political party spent all its effort winning those 41%? What would that party look like? It is conceivable that a brand new party could win a near-majority next time around simply by winning the non-voters!

Or imagine if a news source made a solid effort to really understand the problem here and to reach the populace with accessible and relatively reliable information? We are free to vote, but are we empowered to vote?

Certainly we should take responsibility. Certainly we should vote. But I'm thinking that there are bigger issues that could be addressed here.

I also wonder if the low voter turnout just tells us that people aren't too worried (or if they are, they don't think politics addresses their anxieties either way). They look at the parties in place and the polling data pre-election and it shows them that however it pans out the system will pretty much go as is. Perhaps that is naive and silly and a poor excuse, but I think it explains things pretty well. I mean, I voted, but I am under no illusions that my vote made one iota of a difference and I was never all that worried that our country was going to go off the rails.


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Thank you thank you thank you thank you!

This might be a long entry.

You have expressed with so much eloquence feelings I've been trying to understand in myself for a long time.

You said:
"What's worse: the person who doesn't follow politics, feels uninformed, and doesn't vote, or the equally-in-the-dark person who does?"

YES!!! The idea that everyone should vote is ridiculous.

I think the biggest reason voter turnout this election was low is that it truly, truly was an unimportant election. Political buffs, the media, and politically correct types can't or don't want to understand this; maybe because they're so caught up in following the stories that they've lost all their objectivity. The election matters to them, so they assume everyone else should care almost as much as they do. Which is fine. They care. Good for them. I care too. But just because it was a necessary election (to give the government a new mandate. The election was absolutely NOT a waste of money) doesn't mean it matters much.

I voted. I'm a political guy. But even after examining the issues and researching my local candidates, I felt pretty apathetic. I cast my vote with little enthusiasm. Why?

Because the current leaders of our political parties, and the issues our nation is facing, don't warrant much enthusiasm -positive or negative. That our leaders are boring isn't so bad. I don't mind. Boring is okay.

In the USA I'll bet voter turnout will be quite high on November 4th. Why? Because Obama is really really really interesting, and because if he were to get elected it would represent a significant moment in American history -far beyond the significance of the first black President.

The lowest voter turnout in American Presidential election history was in 1996 (Bob Dole vs. Bill Clinton). I think this is because they weren't particularly worried that "[their] country was going to go off the rails" with either Dole or Clinton. They realized voting didn't matter much that year, so many Americans didn't show up. The system wasn't flawed, and the politicians weren't necessarily letting the people down; it was just 1996 and the election didn't matter much. Same thing for us Canadians yesterday.

I'm tired of seeing non-voters demonized, so I really enjoyed this post.

The only point I might disagree with you is in your call for politicians to try to appeal to the apathetic minority. I don't think some of them really want to be appealed to, and so we should respect them by leaving them alone.

Anyways, I'll leave it at that.

You've completely outdone yourself. This is my favourite piece of political thinking since Obama's speech on race relations last year.

If you don't mind I'd like to reproduce your post in its entirety on my blog.

jon said...

gee thanks Matt, sure, go ahead!

i'm not sure i even disagree with you about trying to appeal to the 41%---although I DO think it would be nice to have resources that distilled and clarified political issues even in layman's terms (in a way reminiscent of those Clarica commercials). its probably out there, i just haven't bothered to find it. i also think that some (perhaps many) of the 41% would have voted if a party said something different to grab them.

Tony Tanti said...

Great post. I have some thoughts, as you may have suspected.

I think the only way you can have mandatory voting is to have a "none of the above" option. The idea that the non-voter is saying something by not going is a bogus to me. If you want to say "none of the above" in our system it's not hard to spoil your ballot.

In our system most of the non voters are apathetic and don't make the effort to learn the difference between the parties. I don't expect everyone to be engaged as much as political people but the basic platforms of each party are readily available online and short summarized versions are available at every news site. Voting takes 10 minutes of your day and learning about the basics of the parties would take about 30 minutes.

The Conservative vote turnout went up and the Liberal vote turnout went way down. My guess is that Liberals who weren't impressed with Dion either voted for Harper or stayed home. The other party leaders didn't inspire a huge turnout for themselves so we were left with a low turnout. High turnouts happen when there's a big issue, last election had a big turnout thanks to the sponsorship scandal and the general "kick the bums out" mentality going around the country at the time. But even that "big turnout" was under 65%.

They say that most of those who don't vote are never gonna vote and never have voted. Someone could spend all their time campaigning to those people and they would lose because they won't go to the polls. Parties campaign to the politically engaged which alienates the non-voter even more because they don't follow the rhetoric.

I'm not convinced that an uninformed voter is an upgrade on a non-voter though.

In Australia voting is mandatory and apparently people are more engaged in the process because they have to make a decision. As I said though, the only way that system works is if "none of the above" is an option because sometimes that's the best choice in an election.

jon said...

i'm not sure if i said non-voters were "saying something" so much as that they had said something. the latter is what i meant to imply.

i'm not sure apathy is the only answer, but apathy would definitely be a contributor. and i'm not sure people are really interested in going to party websites to find their info. i find that unless it is an issue i know about even when someone spouts a position at me i don't fully grasp the ramifications of what i'm siding with. i'm not sure how to get around this. maybe my dream of a political clarica agent for voters is unrealistic.

none of the above is already an option, you can cast a ballot that is blank or spoiled.

jon said...

i wanted to say more but was interrupted. i didn't realize the lower voter turnout was probably disenfranchised liberals or non-conservatives unexcited about anything else. that makes sense. in the end those people said something by not showing up. they said they are fine with things as is.

yeah, it might be a big risk to campaign to non-voters. all that effort and you might not even be the one they vote for.

i think this is just the nature of the beast. democracy that is. politics is frustrating. somehow the country runs reasonably well for the most part. amazing.

you just hope you get a) hard working people who are b) smart about the stuff of government and c) able to lead effectively in the mess and d) who actually do have the people's best interests in mind. i think harper is one of those guys. i'd like to have seen him win a majority but it will be interesting to see if dynamics change as dion perhaps steps down.

i think dion is probably a and d and probably b, but wrong place wrong time and some things holding him back from c really hurt him.

layton is probably a and d.

chretien probably started out with all of it but tainted himself and lost his ability to keep d in focus.

leo mcgarry said on the west wing: "there are two things you don't want to know how they make 'em: laws and sausages."

it blows me away thinking about the mess of political life. i mean that in a good way. i have a bit of a head for policy stuff but there is just so much stuff intertwined in every issue it is dizzying to me. that is even without taking personal dynamics and greasy wheels and corporate lobbying and media pressure and all that into consideration.

i vote more out of duty and appreciation than of thinking my vote counts for something.

i need and i ADMIRE those who are good at it and passionate about it. so when i vote i basically go on the basis of key issues (if there are any), go with my perception of reliability, and ultimately see my vote as participation in the process that ultimately ought to keep politicians honest.

i think we owe our politicians respect, thanks, and admiration when they do well, and they should not be surprised at our anger if they betray our trust. we can't blame them for everything though. we rarely give them the credit they deserve. by asking them to answer for things we also voice our desire that they be on top of things as much as possible. by towing the party line and not asking them to answer for things may actually turn our political earnestness into political uselessness. by only ever whining about the government we really don't help matters much. we have to respect the fact that decisions have to be made and we have to see the overall perspective as much as possible. . . . [here jon trails off into the endless back and forth of the discussion, ultimately causing his brain to implode. . . .]

Tony Tanti said...

I agree, but a spoiled ballot counts as a voter so that's what I was saying, if you want to say none of the above you can still take the time to go and vote.

People aren't interested in party websites, that's for sure. There is a lot of other info out there though and it's not hard to find. That being said, if you knew of someone exploring Christianity and they refused to hear what a Christian has to say about it what would you think? If they then had an opinion based only what critics of Christianity were saying, what would you think?

That's how I feel about people who think politicians are all liers but buy everything the media says about them.

You're going to get an idealist version of everything at a party website but the parties go to great lengths to let you know what they think, and for the most part they really mean what they say.

I'm not saying that you look at politics this way Jon, just trying to draw an analogy to explain some of my frustration with the excuses people use for being unengaged.

Tony Tanti said...

I don't consider you unengaged by the way. I posted my last comment at the same time as yours I think.

Your a, b, c, and d are a good summation. I think almost all politicians are honestly in it for the good of the country, or at least what they think is the good of the country. That's why I think people should take the time to find out what each party thinks would be the best thing for the country, then pick the party they agree with. I know it sounds simple but it's really not complicated. All the ins and outs of committee work, legislative calendars... knowledge of that stuff isn't necessary to understand the differences in the parties.

jon said...

i think you're right. i think we could check party websites and such. i guess part of my problem is that even once i understand a party's platform, i'm not sure which i prefer. i like the ideal of universal health care and tax breaks for working families (whoever they are) but i'm not sure that is necessarily best. how on earth do i decide that? i like that the parties have to fight it out, actually. so i can understand people wanting to leave it to the experts, and being okay with an election that they have no part in. i'd be afraid to vote out of ignorance and get some yahoo in there who tries something idealistic that the wiser politicians who are more aware of the history have realized long ago just won't work.

then again, i think the politicians need a few (maybe more) idealists among them.

i'd like to do a better job of being informed next time around. good point about everyone being suspicious of parties and then buying the media. i guess i am expressing the frustration of a guy who is even more suspicious (or disappointed) in the media and isn't sure where to turn.

i do think more of us should keep in mind that most politicians do want the best for the country.

by the way, a big congrats to tony tanti everyone, here is a real life politician who does very good work for a very good man and whose hard campaigning won that man his job back. three cheers for tony tanti from everyone here at thissideofsunday!

Trev said...

Hey guys,

Great discussion (and a great post Jon).

I'm a non-voter (this time around). Am I apathetic? Perhaps. I know I'm going to be eaten alive for this one but, the reason I didn't vote was because I didn't feel confident in my own decision. I tried to convince myself that I knew who to vote for, but at the end of the day I was questioning my own intergrity in the matter.

You see, I studied up on the candidates in a big way (more than ever before), and it seemed that the more I engaged in their policies, promises and plans, the more I forgot what I stood for.

Almost as if I over-studied?

I came close to making my final decision several times, but when I'd share my thoughts with others, they would ask "why would you vote for that man/woman? You agree with this garbage?" or "Haven't you read about this scandal?" or "Don't you know what he's done for our country so far?"

And here I would stand, being made to feel ashamed by the "voters". Sometimes I get the feeling that voters don't want to just convince the non-voters to vote; they want to convince them to vote for what they believe.

I was left so confused and disallusioned in the end, that I simply didn't know what I believed in anymore!

Tony Tanti said...

Thanks for the three cheers Jon!

I appreciate the comments being made here, I hope I don't come off as disrespectful to non-voters or uninformed voters. I was just trying to say that it's not as tough as people think to learn about the parties.

I guess I've never looked at politics the way you and trev are talking about here. I've always had a pretty good idea of my core political values, smaller government, less waste, less taxes when possible but high quality delivery of govn't programs at the same time, basic freedoms of religion and speech etc..., and most of all personal responsibility for citizens (ie: punishment fits the crime, benefits to those who deserve them and not to those who don't...) No party embodies all of this perfectly but I've always found the parties that come closest tend to the be small 'c' conservative ones.

Anyway, I'm glad my MP was re-elected, he's a good MP and I had my faith in the voters restored when they recognized his good work by voting him back in.

Micah Smith said...

59% voted? The Conservatives got 38% of the popular vote. That means that 22.42% of the people in Canada who are eligible, voted for the Conservatives. Less than 1/4 of the voters almost got a majority government.

The non-voters really won a majority.

I also wished for easier access to information that matters. It wasn't as easy in this election, as in the 2006 election from my attempts, to find out how each party would tackle specific issues. I wanted a break down of the issues, and of each party's response to those issues and then could have a better understanding of who I agreed with and who I didn't. That wasn't as easy to find, or I wasn't motivated enough.

I am not actually convinced that politicians think much of the electorate's ability to comprehend the issues, and I wonder if the electorate has the tools and the means to actually be able to take a stab at coming to grips with any particular issue facing government at a high enough level to really know what politicians have to face in terms of consequences and inter relationships of various issues and balances that each 'issue' is connected to.

Anywho, glad to read you post Jon, I hope and pray you are doing very well, and that you will continue to do so in your academic studies.

Micah Smith

jon said...

thanks trevor and micah for the added perspective. really interesting stuff.

Tony Tanti said...

Micah may be right about parties underestimating the public's ability to grasp complex issues. I'm still not sure how anyone can claim it was hard to find what each party stood for though, never in history has it been so easy to find info on what each party stands for, they're all online as are thousands of news sites and each one is eager to tell you their take on things. Even just by simply going to Wikipedia a person could have seen all the party platforms.

As for breaking down how much of the vote it takes to win, yeah it's true that a government can be formed with less than half the votes, that's a result of our multi-party system and frankly the two party system has far more flaws.

Take municipal elections as an example, they usually get less than 30% of eligible voters out to vote, this means that if the mayor of your town got half the votes they actually got 15% of the eligible votes. That doesn't mean the mayor has no mandate, and it certainly doesn't put the responsibility of the low turnout on the shoulders of the mayor.

Jack Layton complained recently that over 60% of voters didn't choose the government. Well by that logic 82% of voters didn't choose Jack Layton, 74% of voters didn't like the Liberals and 93% of voters didn't choose the Green party. That doesn't take away from the many votes each of them did get. A vote cast is worth more than the ones not cast, and it must be this way. If we extrapolate the stats to include the non-voters we pay way too much respect to their lack of vote.

It's your right to not vote in our system but I don't think any non-voter should expect their non-vote to count for anything. In our riding their were 7 choices to vote for and if none of those were good enough a person can cast a ballot that will be rejected and they will still count in the overall voter turnout.

The government got almost 40% of all votes, period. That's a solid mandate in our system. Chretien formed three majorities with 41%, 38% and 41% respectively.

el Maggie said...

just don't eat your ballot. It's illegal.

(Jon, found you through your new evangelical discussion group - I read Tara regularly, and thought I'd check out what you had to say. It's refreshing to read something about the election that isn't partisan).

micah smith said...

I understand that its possible to information, I guess what I want also, is the possibility to discuss the topics, positions, etc. I am not sure there is good forums for that for Christians, and non Christians to get informed beyond simply googling the topics which is unacceptable except as a very rough starting point.