Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Five Ways To Improve Voter Turnout Right Now

Unrepresentative democracy and undemocratic elections in Canadian society? Check

There are no nice ways to put it and no positive ways to spin it. Voter turnout is a huge problem. The good news is that it is one of the few problems we have as a society that is relatively simple to solve. I'm not interested in the "what" anymore; "Election fatigue", "Candidates promising little change" and "voter disengagement" are the latest lazy, unhelpful terms columnists are employing to describe the trend in public reaction to elections. That reaction was clearly, on October 6 in Ontario as it was in all other Canadian elections in recent memory, "I DON'T GIVE A F___!" How else to explain last Thursday's 49% voter turnout, meaning that a whole 18% of eligible voters in Ontario actually voted for McGuinty's "Major-Minority"?

That tells me that the state of democracy in this country is a travesty. Why? Because it allows politicians to strut around and act like they're legit and vindicated even though in many cases (like the October 2011 Ontario election) the voters who won a "majority" are those who didn't vote at all, which last time I checked constitutes...a boycott!

The time for cute antics and slogans like "Rock the vote" "Vote or die" and "Yes we can" is over. The gloves have to come off. Elections Ontario beefed up its offer to voters considerably this year by having twenty-eight days of advance polling, the first mail-in ballots ever, and a clear, visible, no-nonsense ad campaign explaining to people the voting options available to them. I had the privelege of participating in the Star's Speak Your Mind platform, which tried to offer local riding coverage and social media overlaps to reach voters and get them out, pointing them to their local race. And voters responded emphatically to all of this by not showing up. When I say gloves off, what I mean is I don't see the point of whining our faces off after the next election when, to everyone's great surprise, voter turnout will have dropped yet again. We've witnessed this outcome too many times and it's time to take steps to make our democracy a functioning one. Unless you want to read this kind of stuff for the rest of your life

And today, Lacking Credentials actually has solutions! Real, original, simple solutions. This is a problem about which I feel qualified to do more than complain and critique, because I actually have ideas that address it. This essay is a project I'm starting about voter turnout because I believe these ideas are necessary tools for raising it. Here they are:

#1 - Introduce Mandatory Voting - People who want to stay home from the polls on election day will be levied a $150 charge, non-negotiable, payable on their annual tax return. This will immediately plug the persistent gap between the unaware/uninterested eligible voters and the distressed citizens concerned about the illegitimacy and malaise that slowly creep into a democracies with such low turnouts.

It is absolutely insane that we allow every member of the citizenry the right to demand free medical care, public transportation, trains on time, lights that switch on and taps that run, but totally let them off the hook when the time comes to choose the people responsible for legislating these things. An indignant "Huh?" is what you get then; a deer in the headlights, don't know, don't care, why-are-you-bugging-me-about this reaction. Sorry folks, these politicians are making serious decisions about your tax dollars being spent and the regulations governing your life and it's not somebody else's problem. It's not an inconvenient telemarketing call during dinner. It's democracy and you will participate or else it will cost you this token sum to tell us you refuse to. And of course, I don't want to make invalids and bedridden old people and whoever else really can't move suffer - there would be a streamlined, lenient, less than 1 page, exception process. But everybody else is back on the hook. Don't tell me its not feasible or unrealistic. We do a crack job making sure every driver on the road has a valid licence and insurance, and that the parents of every baby born register the birth, and that anyone who wants to leave the country visits the passport office. Governments have decided these things are important, because they are, and they've created rules and fines to back them up. They've also decided mandatory voting isn't important, because its not - to them. Apathy and staying home help them stay in power. This rule would allow us to take the power back.

#2 - Introduce a "None of the above" option on the ballot. My first idea would be a big improvement - I truly believe that ignorance is the main source of these pathetic turnouts and it would stamp out a lot of it in a hurry. But why stop there and settle for forced voting? We can also make voting more interesting for all these new voters and throw another group driving low turnout, the "Those bastards have screwed me too many times!" crowd, a bone in the process. But there would be a condition to this "protest" vote, which is agreeing to participate in a local assembly if "None of the above" actually won the most votes in a riding. This slightly contravenes the sacred "secret ballot" principle, but you wouldn't be forced to show up - if anything you'd risk a room of your fellow constituents picking a random and sending him to the legislature, which I think would suit a lot of disgusted voters just fine.

#3 - Improve Political Education. Okay, my last one maybe has some logistics issues, but nothing that can't be hammered out by some intelligent folks in an evening. This one here is dead simple, and has been overlooked up until now because its not valued. And who decides what gets taught and what doesn't? You guessed it. Politicians, ministries and bureaucrats.

Why do most people leave school knowing how to add, subtract, read, write, and identify elements on the periodic table, but when you mention constituencies, candidates, majorities, minorities, ballots and riding associations they look at you like you're speaking a foreign language. All students should be learning 1) How to run for public office 2) How political parties operate 3)What the responsibilities of each level of government are and 4)How to vote. And I don't mean some crappy, half-credit online civics course that everyone cheats on like we have now. These basic things that all citizens need to know before they leave secondary school and reach voting age, two things which usually happen at about the same time, are clearly being overlooked when our children are being educated.

#4 - Add "Political Credit Scores" to the ballot. You hear a lot about not understanding "the issues". Or, your "choices". And I don't blame you. Requiring society to read 15-62 page platforms and bore through reams of newspapers every day is neither possible nor desirable. I want citizens to participate; I can't and shouldn't expect them to be extremely well-versed on the intricacies of fifteen or twenty issues.

How then do we cut to the heart of the matter? What is it about politics that really matters? Are we seeking the leader who most passionately and valiantly defends his/her ideals? The orator with the most stirring rhetoric and debate performance?

The politicians may think we are, but we don't have time to waste on this stuff. If you want stirring speeches, arguments and flourish, read Cicero. Or just watch Hollywood movies about sports. If you want to see how far oratory skills take a country, look at America's trajectory under Barack Obama. People think politics is about putting a suit on and making speeches. I wouldn't be writing this if that were true; in fact, I'd be less inclined to vote myself. The truth is, we elect politicians because they get to put their hands on the purse strings. They manage our money, we trust them with it. When they screw up, we have to pay. And when they do a good job, we save. That's pretty much all we can hope and expect all voters to know and understand.

So the question then becomes how to present this information to voters. I think a "credit-worthiness" angle would be most effective. When a person goes into a bank asking to borrow money to purchase a home or start a business, does the bank employee spend weeks looking through their shoeboxes of receipts and ask for a 40 slide powerpoint presentation, a speech, and a ten page essay? No. They look at the customer's financial situation and the credit score, and they learn everything they need to know. At the political level, everything we need to know can be found in the same pertinent questions a bank employee asks when granting credit. How much is coming in and how much is going out? What revenue will likely come in down the road and what is the risk that it won't? Most important, what does this person owe out there? Do they pay on time? Are they overextended? Have they let stuff go bad? Are they starting to?

You could develop a three-sentence, non-partisan credit report of each party, the last time it was in government, and how it managed public finances, to accompany each ballot. No BS, no spin, no judgement either way - just facts. Hard, proven numbers and time lines. Banks won't think of lending to an individual without this. Why should we treat politicians any differently? They are, after all, individuals too.

#5 - Clean up the discourse. I am all for free expression when it comes to private consumption and private production. But all of the strategies I've described above won't work unless we unplug what is driving the cynicism that is corroding the insides of our democracy inside the minds of voters and non-voters alike. Get rid of all these attack ads, partisan ads, partisan junk mail, radio ads, robo-calls - enough! Like Harlequin Romance novels, nobody will admit to having anything to do with these things, yet they do brisker business every year. This is the issue the political leaders are the most cowardly on: They'll never admit in public that they think misleading and frightening five people into voting for them is worth it if it makes forty people stay home - but they do. Their actions speak louder than words, and their silence on this particular issue is deafening.

So who's with me? Mandatory voting, None of the above ballot option, political education, political party credit scores, and an immediate end to all the toxic, partisan, substance-free junk. Simple and clear rules to correct this disgraceful voter turnout situation right away. If you have any doubts about any of it, I'd love to hear them and discuss with you.

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