In the wake of the 2008 federal election, many Canadians are concerned about the lowest rate of voter turnout in the history of Canadian confederation.
For the first time in Canadian history, voter turnout dropped below 60&. 13.8 million out of 23.4 million voters reported to cast ballots in the election, which returned Stephen Harper's Conservative government for a second term. Sadly, this is down a full million from the 2006 election.
Sad, that is, unless you're Will Wilkinson. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Wilkinson muses "no voters, no problem!"
"Last week's federal election was decided with the lowest levels of voter turnout in Canadian history -- about 59 per cent. But public-spirited citizens should not therefore wring their hands about the sorry state of Canadian democracy. Contrary to the folklore of democratic health, low turnout can signal social solidarity, reflect real civic virtue, and even make democracy work better."This is, of course, nonsense. Wilkinson's justification for this absurd statement relies heavily on "if" and "but" reasoning.
"We humans are adversarial beings, easily riled by us-versus-them conflict. (Even Canadians!) Democratic politics is a wonderful way to peacefully channel social antagonism into ritual symbolic warfare. High voter turnout is as likely to reflect angry social division as it is to augur the reign of Kumbaya social cohesion.Wilkinson actually suggests that lower voter turnout reflects higher rates of social trust. If one is actively seeking a means by which they can alleviate anxiety over low voter participation, this would almost seem adequate.
Indeed, lower levels of turnout may suggest that voters actually trust each other more -- that fewer feel an urgent need to vote defensively, to guard against competing interests or ideologies. Is it really all that bad if a broad swath of voters, relatively happy with the status quo, sit it out from a decided lack of pique?"
But those who pay attention know quite different: that a failure to participate in what is actually the easiest way to participate in the political process is a failure to care.
Those who don't plan to vote certainly aren't attending political rallies or candidate debates. And if they read about the election at all, it's more likely than not that it's simply en rote to the Sunshine Girl.
The notion that voter non-participation reflects higher rates of civic trust seems to rest on the notion that voters cannot find a preference amongst the various offered alternatives. But this would suggest a significant portion of the Canadian electorate -- 40% + -- that would need to be utterly devoid of personal values.
No one is devoid of personal values.
A more likely alternative yet is that voters aren't finding candidates who embody their values. Even this underlies a deeply-rooted problem within the political system: a lack of options in the Canadian political system.
Furthermore, Wilkinson actually suggests that a refusal to vote is a vote for the status quo. Simply not so. After all, the notion that declining to vote is a vote for the status quo would depend on the status quo being assured.
In the 2008 federal election, the status quo was far from assured. In fact, the status quo is never assured.
The numerous recounts ordered after the election show how close this election was in many ridings -- some in which the incumbent was defeated.
In such cases, only a few more ballots in favour of the incumbent -- in favour of the status quo -- could have made the difference.
Not voting is not a vote for the status quo. Not voting is a vote for nothing.
"Moreover, if you want to be civic-minded, your duty isn't to fill in ballots just to fill in ballots. You shouldn't do it in ignorance, out of emotion, or to win approval from your political friends. Your duty is to vote well -- to participate in a way that, at the very least, makes the outcome no worse.Certainly, an informed voter is much better than an uninformed voter. An informed voter will make a wiser decision ten times out of ten.
Everybody has an incontestable and absolute right to his or her vote, but that doesn't mean it's always right to vote. Abstaining can be a way of looking after the public good, too. Not all of us have the energy, inclination, or opportunity to learn what we need to know in order to vote well. And that's OK. There's more to public-spiritedness than showing up at the polls. You can run a small business or coach a kids' hockey team with the common good in mind. That's an expression of civic virtue, too.
The virtue of opting out is especially clear once you grasp that more voting isn't necessarily better voting. Specialists in public opinion have exhaustively documented the average voter's shocking ignorance about the main issues of the day, the names of their local candidates for office, or the policies the candidates support."
But it's hard to imagine who, in this country, could not have the time or opportunity to inform themselves during election time. Election news dominates television, radio and newsprint during a campaign. The internet is inevitably abound with news about virtually any candidate or party one could wish to inform themselves about.
In order to not have the opportunity to inform oneself on an election, one would have to either be blind and deaf, or living in a uni-bomber style shack.
Frankly, Wilkinson may be right about one thing: any voter unwilling to turn off the new Metallica CD long enough to listen to news radio on the way to or from work may be doing their country a service by not voting. But that individual would still do their country a greater service by casting an informed vote on election day.
"The flakiest voters -- the ones least motivated to show up at the polls year in and year out -- also tend to be most poorly informed. So when turnout drops, it tends to leave the pool of remaining voters with an improved average level of political knowledge and policy know-how. If well-informed voters have a better picture of the candidate or party most likely to promote the general welfare, then especially high turnout can actually tilt an election away from the better choice, leaving everyone a bit worse off. And that's not very civic-minded."This is an argument that also leads directly into the realm of elite rule. The argument raised is that, in order to make a valid political decision, one should know how government works.
But one need not know the ins-and-outs of running a Parliamentary committee in order to judge a candidate's ideas and qualifications.
"At this point in the argument, some readers will have become pretty upset. The "best informed" voters tend to be the best-educated, and therefore tend to be relatively wealthy. Doesn't this line of thinking suggest that relatively disadvantaged citizens would do us all a favour -- would do themselves a favour -- by staying home on election day? But then who will stand up for them? Who will promote their interests?True enough. But not voting doesn't support any notion of the public good. Once again, a ballot not cast is a ballot for nothing.
It's an excellent question, but it's based on one disproven and one unlikely assumption. The disproven assumption is that economic self-interest predicts voter behaviour. The consensus finding of political scientists is that voters -- lettered and unlettered, rich and poor -- tend to vote in good faith to promote what they see as the public good. That's good news. The unlikely assumption is that the voters who know least about politics and public policy have the means to make good decisions about which candidates and policies will best promote their interests. That doesn't compute."
Even if non-voters have no opinion regarding the public good, it would be remiss to pretend that, in itself, is not a problem.
"But everyone should have the means to make informed and effective democratic decisions. And that's really the issue, isn't it? It would be ideal were each and every citizen to have the income and education typical of well-informed, motivated voters. But to get there, we need policies that will actually work to promote broader prosperity and a fuller realization of basic human capacities. A better-informed pool of voters is more likely to deliver those policies."In other words, in order to increase voter turnout, Wilkinson argues, we would need to increase the level of education.
This isn't a bad idea. After all, as Benjamin Barber would remind us, if disagreement is the language of democracy, education provides us with the syntax. Each reasonable excuse for voter non-participation offered by Wilkinson could easily be remedied by better education in various subjects, including history and basic civics.
Twelve million voters declining to cast ballots could, in a sense, almost be argued to be a sign that more and more Canadians are embracing the most basic element of Barber's model of strong democracy -- increased self-government in the public realm.
Yet in order for this to be the case, one would expect to have witnessed a dramatic surge in membership in Civil Society Organizations -- the realm in which self-government most often occurs. Yet membership in most CSOs continues to remain restricted mostly to those most committed to their causes -- ranging from organizations like Amnesty International to the Salvation Army Church.
Many of these people are already amongst any country's most politically active citizens.
Self-government via civil society offers no remedy to non-voter anxiety.
"And so we are left with the Zen riddle of democracy: the closer a non-ideal democracy comes to maximum democratic participation, the less likely it is to adopt the means to ideal democratic participation. Lower voter turnout sets the stage for better democracy.Wilkinson is a researcher for the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. The Cato Institute is think tank that favours individual liberty, free markets and small government.
So, on behalf of our cherished ideals of democratic equality, let me be the first to say: well done, Canadian abstainers."
But only the most fervent libertarian could look at declining voter turnout and see a victory for conservatism or the public good.
After all, declining to participate in the "ritual symbolic warfare" Wilkinson envisions essentially abandons the field of such battle to those with ideas that may prove anathema to the average libertarian.
All it would take for a few seats that would otherwise be won by pro-small government candidates to go to their statist adversaries would be for just a few too many voters accepting Wilkinson's invitation to theoretically vote for the status quo by not voting at all.
Under such circumstances, the non-vote for the status quo was actually a vote for bigger government, and -- in the wrong hands -- less of the individual freedom that the Cato Institute favours.
One wonders if Wilkinson would be willing to stand by this column if that actually turned out to be the case.