Martlet: Canadians fail their civic duty

28 Oct

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Canadians fail their civic duty

Canada has been regarded as one of the most educated places in the world, one of the best countries to live in and a country that contributes generously to poorer nations all over the globe. But, judging by the latest Stats Canada results, Canadians have begun to neglect their most basic of duties and rights. That is to say, voting.

According to Elections Canada, voting numbers took a sharp downward turn in the last election — though the numbers weren’t exactly encouraging in the previous few elections, either. Roughly 60 per cent of registered voters participated in the past three elections (2000, 2004 and 2006), which sounds high, until it’s noted that only a little over half of all Canadians are registered voters. That means that only about 35 per cent of the population voted, giving the federal government power by well under half of all Canadians. How serious is this?

“[Voting rates] are definitely a problem” said Denis Pilon, a Political Science professor at UVic.

Pilon says that Canadians are not alone in this recent trend. Other industrialized nations around the world are experiencing similar declines in voting numbers.

In the 1970s, Canada drew 70 to 80 per cent of its registered voters to the polls. In the 2008 federal election, that number dropped to 58 per cent — a six per cent decline from the previous election, and the largest decline in the past decade.

According to Pilon, the problem lies in the younger generations.

“[Historically], young people in their 20s have never voted in large numbers,” Pilon said. “But as people came into their 30s, they began to have a better interest and understanding of how voting affected their lives, and so they started turning up to the polls. That’s not happening anymore. What was once a cyclical aversion to voting has become more permanent.”

Pilon says this trend is not as obvious in the middle-upper classes, but is very apparent in the working class.

“People in the upper classes feel that they are qualified to vote, even if they know very little about the issues. Working class people feel that they are not qualified to vote, so they don’t go to the polls,” said Pilon.

Pilon went on to explain that over this last half century, politics had slowly shifted toward TV and away from personal connections. Where parties once went door-to-door in force to try and encourage people to vote for them, they now use commercials, press conferences and media coverage to spread their messages.

“The problem with that [technological] change is that TV is harder to recap, it’s not written down, so you can’t go back and confirm what you heard,” said Pilon. “People who rely on the TV for information aren’t learning nearly as much as they would if they could sit down and talk to someone face to face.”

Another issue is that most political stories you see in the media are scandals or smears, making people less likely to trust politicians and more likely to develop a general feeling of hostility toward politics.

Combine that with the feelings of insecurity or confusion many Canadians have toward politics, and it’s no wonder most don’t vote.

“It’s not so much that the product is bad,” Pilon said, referring to the political parties. “It’s just that people don’t even know what the product is.”

The only way to get people back to the polls, Pilon says, is to enlighten them and make them feel like they do know enough to vote in elections.

The best way to do this: go back to the tried-and-true method of personal contact.

Door-to-door canvassing by political parties preaching their message, and by the government encouraging people to register and then vote. It sounds so easy, but will it happen?

“If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have told you it wasn’t going to happen and that we’re all going to hell in a hand basket,” said Pilon. “But then Obama came along and won the American election. That changed a lot of things.”

U.S. President Barack Obama did have a well-oiled campaign machine that involved a lot of door-to-door canvassing by volunteers. Ironically, a large percentage of the volunteers were students in the 20s — the candidates who historically are the least likely to vote.

Pilon says the success Obama had in bringing younger voters to the polls may change the attitudes of political parties in countries like Canada, and perhaps the necessary mobilization will occur.

“But it’s too early to tell yet,” he added.

Canadian politicians may be forced to take a long hard look at the U.S.’s historic election in order to learn from it and bring around a much needed change in Canadian attitudes toward voting.

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