A few weeks ago the CBC Sunday call-in show ‘Cross Country Check Up’ devoted the entire program to wondering why young voters don’t participate in the electoral process. There are other bigger problems with elections in Canada than the lack of enthusiasm by young people.
Across the country voters are staying away from the polls in droves as was seen in the four bye-elections held on Monday.
In the Alberta riding of Fort McMurray-Athabaska, the Conservative candidate won, but, in total he only got votes from 5,945 of the 83,647 people eligible to vote. Turnout in the riding was a record low of 15.9 per cent. When more than 71,000 voters stay home, the problem is a lot larger than a few thousand young people ignoring their democratic right to chose who governs them.
As far as this particular set of bye-elections is concerned it is necessary to call a spade, well, to call it a very sharp round-pointed shovel, thrust into the system in such a way as to discourage voter participation. Why else would the Harper Government schedule an election on the day before Canada Day. A day that thousands of Canadians took as a holiday in order to create a nice long weekend to start the summer.
Turnout for bye-elections is always lower than for general elections. But a 16 per cent turnout is pathetic. In the other Alberta riding where there was an election on Monday, turnout was only marginally better at 19.6 per cent.
In the two Toronto ridings where elections were held voters were a bit more diligent. In Scarborough-Agincourt the turnout was 29.4 per cent and in Trinity-Spadina it was 31.9 per cent.
By contrast turnouts at provincial elections on P.E.I. since the 2000 are usually in the 80 per cent range, but in the last provincial election it fell to just over 76 per cent, only the second time since 1966 that it went below 80 per cent. Turnout on the Island in federal elections is slightly less than what it is for provincial elections. Islanders can be justly proud of their voting record.
The same isn’t true on the federal scene. Since 2000 turnout in federal elections in Canada is in the 60 per cent range. Instead of focusing on youth, who traditionally don’t vote in large numbers, the CBC and others should be asking why more and more Canadians have seemingly given up on politics and are staying away from the polls.
In urban centres it may be that politicians can’t connect with their constituents in any meaningful way. In Trinity-Spadina there were 109,000 eligible voters, that’s about 75 per cent of the entire population of P.E.I. How does an urban politician reach out to that many people? How can these politicians know what their constituents’ concerns are?
Polls might say that they’re health care, or education, or the economy. But, these are just headings that aren’t specific, or very personal. So urban politicians become figureheads, disconnected from the people they are trying to serve.
P.E.I.’s high participation rate in elections wasn’t always based on lofty political ideals. As often as not, it was based on pure pragmatism. What can I get for my vote? Some pavement? A pint? A job? Not long ago many a rural politician got elected by promising to pave the road.
It didn’t always work.
Campaigning on a muddy clay road north of Summerside in the spring of 1970, the two Liberal candidates knocked on the door of a farm house. When the woman opened the door, she was startled, and asked, “Mr. Jardine, is that you?”
“Yes it is ma’am,” replied the long serving MLA, Frank Jardine.
“Well, I thought you were dead,” replied the woman. “The last time I saw you, was during the last election. You were standing on that back stoop promising to pave our road. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you since. The road ain’t paved, so I figured you died.”
They marked her down as ‘undecided’.
No one would advocate a return to bribing voters with a $2 bill or a teddy of rum. But, if politicians truly want more people involved in the electoral process they will have to find ways to connect with the real issues that are concerning them. Discerning what those are, will be a major challenge.
If Canada emulated Australia and made voting mandatory, perhaps then they’d take more interest in who they elect to public office?
Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org