The Reverberations of Voting

“Voting is and always should be an act of conscience. But our consciences must weigh many things: which candidate best represents our views, yes, but also the overall political landscape and the potential effects of each candidate’s victory or defeat. It is naive and simplistic to say that the only thing that matters, the only thing that should matter, is getting to vote for the person you like best, as though your relationship to the election ended as soon as your ballot was cast. It doesn’t. We live with the results of our voting for years.” – Torontoist, October 22nd, 2010

I haven’t been able to address this quote yet on this blog until now. The quote is pulled from a half-hearted endorsement by the Torontoist of Toronto Mayoral candidate George Smitherman who was defeated this evening by Mayor-elect Rob Ford. While the arguments for support were interesting and valuable, the thing that struck me most about the post was this quote.

I long ago decided (although I am only twenty-four years old so perhaps not that long ago) the framework I would use each time I cast a ballot. Elections provide voters with a lot of options. Not just between parties and candidates but also between abstract ideas and concrete promises. Some of these issues will address my own concerns and interests while others will not. This does not sway my vote.

The reason my vote is cast without thought to personal issues is because I believe in a concept of government where it and the people in it are there to bring good to society. I feel that the job of government is to bring about positive change in society, to help those in need, and to do what individuals and other groups alone cannot accomplish on behalf of the citizenry.

what does this have to do with my vote? Because of the type of government I believe in, I cannot ethically cast my ballot with my personal interests as my guide. Society is too big and government’s real purpose too noble for me to attempt to influence it for my own gain. I feel that my vote is put to better use if I cast it with the interests of all of society as my guide. Thus when I fill out a ballot, I think of what would be best for Canada, Ontario, or my home city as a whole and not just what would benefit me most.

It can be argued that if everyone bases their vote on their own concerns then everyone is taken care of. This does not reflect the government I believe in and in my opinion, goes against the very nature of societal organization. We formed societies in the first place because of the benefits we gained by splitting up tasks and responsibilities. Government formed for the very same reasons. To vote with concern for only my own interests goes against both of these facts of human nature. We need one another and because of that we need to look out for one another and our collective needs.

I am all for supporting your beliefs and sticking to your principles, especially when filling out a ballot. But when the values you feel would best serve society at large are put in jeopardy by a strong candidate who opposes everything you believe is right in your city, province, country or the world… sometimes it is best to see what you can salvage.

I do not advocate strategic voting as there are far too many variables in play to really know who your vote will help. I do believe in finding a candidate you can reasonably support, that you can approve of if not outright get excited about. Some of the most progressive and needed changes we have enjoyed as a country came incrementally by those who had the foresight to see the big picture instead of dwelling on ideas society could not yet stomach.

So while I support people having convictions, I also support those who have the courage to see that their convictions will not be granted immediate gratification. That they must work harder and longer to achieve the change they really want. Change is not carried in by those who are left on the sidelines because they could not understand theirs was just one voice of many. It arrives with those patient few who are willing to wait for society to gradually catch up.

I like to call this approach social incrementalism because social change is not an event but a process and the people who bring it about are those who gently push society along with them instead of leaving the majority bitterly in their dust. It is the welcoming of evolution in social thought and the rejection of revolutions that would lead to half-formed ideas forced on an ill-prepared citizenry.

While radicals and fringe candidates have their place, it is centrists and moderates that govern with the most fairness. They do not swing too far in either direction and while they can’t please every voter, they can appeal to the needs and interests of most voters to some degree. In a system where we all have a right to our opinions and get to have our say at the ballot box, the moderates are the ones that best address our societal needs at a communal level.

I want to encourage voters in future elections to think about society as a whole when they cast their ballots. I want voters to remember that in the aftermath of an election the issues we personally care about may change or drop off the radar entirely, but the general direction of our collective vote, the reverberations of our collective decision, will shape our entire society for years to come.

Today in Canadian History – October 26

1774 -The Continental Congress writes to Canada and Nova Scotia inviting them to join the American Revolution

1908 – Wilfrid Laurier defeats Robert Borden in Canada’s 11th election with the support of 50.4% of the population. Arthur Meighen and William Lyon Mackenzie King are both elected for the first time.

1917 – Passchendaele

1982 – Parliament renames Dominion Day to Canada Day.

1987 – Ottawa adopts the Meech Lake Accord.

1992 – The Charlottetown Accord is rejected. NB, NFLD, NWT, Ontario, and PEI all vote majority support in favour. The other provinces and territories do not.

Today in Canadian History – October 22

1844 – Louis Riel is born

1885 – Judicial Committee of the Privy Council rules against the appeal of Louis Riel’s sentence; he will be hanged

1945 – The Liberal Government of WLM King introduces the Canadian Citizenship Act into the House of Commons

1995 – Prime Minister Jean Chretien helps celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN in New York City

Civic Restoration and Renewal in Canada

The federal election of 2008 left in its wake a worrisome level of voter participation with the lowest turnout rate at the polls in our history. This was however just the most recent marker in a growing history of declining civic participation.

A decline in voter turnout began in the 1980s as the elections of 1984 and 1988 both saw turnout rates of over 75% which over the next 20 years would decline election after election until reaching just under 61% in June 2004.

The election of 2006 offered the first spike in turnout in over twenty years, reaching nearly 65%. This was still however much lower than the record highs of the 1950s and 60s when turnout reached 79% on three different occasions. Any hope there may have been for the return of widespread civic engagement in Canada was quashed when under 59% of voters turned out for the 2008 election.

Youth voter turnout, that is turnout for voters between the ages of 18 and 24 or ‘new voters’, is steadily decreasing as well. The level of turnout for this age bracket is lower than the general population and studies have shown that voters who tune out early rarely re-enter the voting world as they grow older. It remains to be seen where voter turnout levels may be in the years to come.

In a nation where 86% of the population view voting as their duty, why are less than two thirds of the electorate turning up to vote?

The purpose of this blog is to address problems such as low voter turnout but also acknowledge that civic engagement is a package with many components. It is as much about the current state of democracy in this country as it is about our civic history. It is as much about adapting our political system to the needs of modern society as it is about understanding how and why it formed as it did in the first place.

It is a look backwards, forwards and from all sides and goes beyond the hardened opinions and known options already on the table. It is about engagement but also about constant re-engagement. It is about simultaneously understanding where we’ve come from, participating where we are, and dreaming about where we could one day be.

In order to address the decline of Canadian civil society into a democratic deficit the discussion must be broadened and rejuvenated to pull the average citizen back into the process.

The re-engagement process with the Canadian electorate must begin before election day and never have an end-date. For a true reintroduction of civic engagement the discussion must be ongoing, 365 days of the year. It must be continual and have no bystanders, only a nation of participants.

The thoughtful exchange of ideas is as Canadian as the maple leaf or the flag it proudly waves on. It must again become a part of our national identity so that the civic pride that instituted responsible government, pushed for the creation the welfare state, repatriated the Constitution and repeatedly said ‘non’ to the breakup of our nation remains present and strong in the mind of every Canadian once more.