The greatest threat to our democracy is not incompetent leaders. It’s not Bill 21. It’s not the SNC lavalin scandal. The greatest threat to our democracy is when people don’t vote. To vote means to exercise your privileges as a sovereign citizen; to hold government responsible and responsive; to have a say in the democratic process of government.
Yet, far too many times we have witnessed disappointing voter turnout rates in Canada, though the last federal election was the highest (68.3%) Canada has seen since 1993. It’s still disappointing given that prior to 1993, voter turnout rates reached upwards of 70% for 13 consecutive federal elections and referendums, except during 1980. It’s especially disappointing knowing that government has also made concerted efforts to increase voter turnout.
For instance, more advance polls and longer hours has afforded people more flexibility. Improved service at Elections Canada offices has allowed more people to confidently arrive at polling stations knowing that they can go back home in time for dinner. More on-campus voting has given students the ease of access to polling stations. Despite these improvements, voter turnout rates have yet to see any significant jump. What’s happening?
In a study conducted by Stats Canada in 2016, it showed that one in three non-voters in the 2015 federal election reported not being interested in politics, which was ranked as the single largest reason. This was the case for all age groups between the ages of 18 and 64. Voter apathy is not only a problem in Canada but in other democratic countries as well. A nation can implement electoral reform, online voting, and attempt to make as many changes as they wish, but if citizens don’t care about the democratic process of government, if they don’t think their vote matters, if they think that the system is corrupt, then there’s only so much that government can do to increase voter turnout rates.
Or maybe there is something that government can do. Compulsory voting is what 26 nations around the world mandate. In Australia, for example, people are fined for a failure to vote. While compulsory voting is found to have the largest impact on increasing participation rates, it is hardly insignificant to examine if it has any affect on voter apathy. That is, does it help change perceptions of citizens thinking that their vote doesn’t matter, or does it get them to care more about the democratic process of government. In Gabriela Sainati Rangel doctoral dissertation, she found that voters living in countries with compulsory voting are no more likely to report increased feelings of civic duty. This is also consistent with what Shane P. Singh at the University of Georgia found. His research revealed that compulsory voting does not increase satisfaction with democracy. For these reasons, in addition to the fact that some feel it’s undemocratic to mandate citizens to vote, Canada has rejected the idea after receiving very little support from Canadians.
Perhaps online voting is an option to get more people to vote since bad weather, laziness, and not having enough time were reported as some reasons why people don’t vote in a survey conducted by Elections Canada. Canada has studied the possibility of online voting, and is still in consideration for future elections. Some cyber security experts posit that it could have serious security threats from malware on personal computers.
In the upcoming federal election scheduled for October 21st, there won’t be any dramatic change to increase voter participation rates, such as compulsory voting or online voting. It’ll be interesting to see how many people go out and vote. This privilege wasn’t always granted to us. People have fought for years so that all members of society could have the right to vote. Think about the time when voting rights were only exclusive to wealthy men. Or when voting eligibility was determined by property ownership. Think about the time when women and members of some religious and ethnic groups were prohibited from voting in Canada.
People have fought for years so that all members of society could have the right to vote because they know that everyone’s vote matters. It matters what poor people have to say about government. It matters what women have to say about government. It matters what ethnic minorities have to say about government. Your vote matters, even though statistically it is highly unlikely that a person could change the outcome of an election. The failure to have a proportional representation voting system has also contributed to debunk the premise that every vote matters.
But we shouldn’t think about the premise “every vote matters” always in statistical terms. There are also other things that need to be considered. People vote, regardless of whether you’re interested in politics or not, because voting gives you the right to critique issues. Your vote means that you have the right to have a say in how healthcare is delivered. Your vote means that you have the right to have a say in child care initiatives. Your vote means that you have the right to have a say in how the government plans to protect the environment.
Go out and vote. Let’s exercise our fundamental rights and freedoms.
By Vinu Selvaratnam
The views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent any institution.