An illustration from the book Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up by Dave Meslin, which criticizes the current state of Canadian politics. ARTIST MARLENA ZUBER
In the last provincial election, more than four in 10 Albertans chose to not vote and an additional 2,034 waited in line at the polling station, then declined their ballot.
Looking at total votes, more Albertans didn’t vote than voted for the NDP, which eventually formed government.
That’s not just apathy.
Think about it. Why are we voting on a busy weekday? Why do we force people to stand in line at one assigned location, sometimes for hours, when online voting has been successfully used in other countries since 2005?
Why are we still using a “first-past-the-post” system of counting ballots that we know leads to more polarized elections and fewer new voices in politics?
Why are parties constantly asking you to vote for them or give money, but rarely, if ever, ask you to become a party member or tell you how to get involved between elections?
At this point, it’s not just tradition. Clearly someone benefits from a disengaged population.
Author Dave Meslin wrestles with these questions in his new book Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, published by Penguin Random House and set to be released May 14. It’s a good read — thoughtful and informative. It’s also full of practical suggestions for change. The Toronto-based author is scheduled to speak in Edmonton at LitFest June 5.
On weekday voting, he points out that’s rare globally. Most of Europe and South America casts ballots on Sundays. At least a dozen others, including Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, vote Saturdays. It some cases it creates a family festival atmosphere with local community groups hosting fundraisers and barbecues on site.
Every election, people bemoan poor voter turnout. But it’s as if our system is set up to drive voters away.
The problems aren’t just on voting day.
Have you ever sat in the legislature for question period? Don’t. I’m not going to call MLAs or MPs talking monkeys. But someone else could. For all the desk thumping and yelling, that’s as much power as the ordinary politician has.
Meslin describes how, in the last couple decades, political insiders concentrated power in the leader of each political party. Leaders used to be picked by democratically-elected MPs; they were first among equals. But even that doesn’t happen anymore.
Leaders are now elected by the party members, that same group that rarely, if ever, invites regular citizens to get involved. In 2014, the Samara Centre for Democracy looked at 1,300 riding association websites in Canada. Fewer than five per cent had any meeting information posted on their website.
Have you wondered why this election was so polarized and negative? Again, we should question our voting system.
If Albertans ranked their choices on the ballot, elections officials could turn to the second choice if no single candidate won 50 per cent of the votes. That creates an incentive for politicians to build bridges and focus beyond their base.
Or Alberta could adopt a form of proportional representation, where the number of seats going to a party more accurately reflects the number of people who support them. That makes it less likely to get wild swings — right to left to possibly right again.
If the UCP get in, they’ve promised “100 days of change” to rapidly undo nearly everything the NDP just accomplished.
Regular Albertans aren’t shifting wildly like that. It’s our system, our lack of proportional representation, that amplifies small shifts in opinion and sends government spinning into what Meslin calls a “flailing policy fishtail.”
So what does it all mean for the vote Tuesday? Basically, if you think this system is rot and your vote is useless, I’m not going to judge you.
Fortunately, there are other ways to change the game. Meslin writes about a few, including examples in Edmonton.
If you have the stomach for politics, hunt down the information on how to get involved in your local riding association, from whichever party. You might not feel welcome but you can blaze a trail and make change from within.
Otherwise, create a community chalkboard to encourage local conversation. Help your child’s school strengthen its civics curriculum to empower young people. Divert five per cent of your donations to advocacy organizations instead of stop-gap charities. Show up at a community league meeting and learn to listen and have honest conversations with your neighbours.
The point is to rebuild connection and reclaim your voice.
As Meslin writes: “Regardless of which path appeals to you, this is the most important thing: Don’t wait for permission or a personalized invitation. You have to invite yourself.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019