Sunday, March 27, 2011

Can We Make a Case For Mandatory Voting?

In 1891, Guillame Amyot introduced a private members’ bill on compulsory voting, designed to secure “purity in politics.”

A common practice on election day then, was to not only buy votes, but have others impersonate voters on the list, known to have left the area. It was felt that compulsory voting would limit both practices. Some of the logic may have been flawed, but the intention, I suppose, honourable.

The bill was defeated as infringing on citizens' rights.

In 2004, Liberal Senator Mac Harb, sponsored Bill S-22 in the Senate, calling for the introduction of mandatory voting in Canada. His concern was not corruption but voter apathy.
Senator Harb’s call for the introduction of mandatory voting stemmed from his concern with, in his words, “a rising electoral crisis” in Canada. Voter participation rates had gradually declined over the previous three decades and had experienced a “dramatic drop” in the 2004 federal election when a “record low of just 60.9 per cent” [now lower] of electors voted. As “democracy depends upon the active participation of its citizens” and as “record numbers” of young people are no longer voting, Senator Harb claimed that the time had come for Parliament to adopt legislation requiring all eligible electors to vote. (1)
The feeling was that if voting was treated the same way as mandatory taxes, jury duty and wearing seatbelts, it would become a natural thing.

There's no doubt that Canada has a democratic deficit. Stephen Harper is in power based on the will of just 22% of eligible voters. And yet he has been able to negotiate aggressive trade deals that diminish our sovereignty, control the Senate, and refuse to provide necessary information to Parliament; our elected representatives, whom we pay to hold the government to account.

It's interesting that in a 2005 Conservative press release, suggesting that Paul Martin was abusing his power, it was written: 'Responsibility to Parliament is absolutely key in our system of government. Unlike the United States, we lack checks and balances to constrain the power of the Executive. Parliament is the only meaningful constraint on the Executive and their widespread powers. When this constraint ceases to exist, the Governor-General, effectively chosen by the Prime Minister and likely therefore beholden to him/her, becomes the only check on the Prime Minister. That check is neither realistic nor desirable, let alone democratic or accountable.' (2)

The problem with low voter turnout is that often those who don't show up at the polls, are the ones who suffer the most from government decisions. Statistics have shown that the ridings with the highest voter volume, are those with the wealthiest citizens. So should we be surprised that governments draft legislation, that has the most benefit to that level of society?

The Conservatives, in fact, count on it. They ignore the poor and disenfranchised, because they know they can't count on their vote, so instead count on them not voting at all.

The first time in recent history that this strategy has been applied, was during the Reagan campaign, when his campaign manager was Stephen Harper's bridge to the American Religious Right, Paul Weyrich.
"With [Ronald] Reagan's outspoken opposition to the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Republican strategists knew that they would have to write off the blackvote. But although 90 per cent of black voters cast their ballots for the democrats, only 30 percent of eligible black Americans voted. Republican ... strategist Paul Weyrich stated "I don't want everyone to vote ... our leverage in the election quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down. We have no moral responsibility to turn out our opposition." (3)
It's why Conservatives try to make Parliament toxic. Why they defend their scandals by suggesting that the Liberals did it too, even when that isn't true or grossly exaggerated.

If voters can remain turned off at the polls, they will continue to tune out, and low voter turn out always favours the incumbent. Personally, I don't like the idea of compulsory voting, but do accept that we are now in a democratic crisis. We have to get people voting again. And not only voting but paying attention to what is taking place in their country.

Stephen Harper has shown what happens when we don't.

We become a government of one, where the people no longer have a voice. Canada has gone from first place to last in terms of accountability and openness. Stephen Harper has grown so confident in the knowledge that people won't care what he does, that he no longer acts on the wishes of the people.

Why should he?

We need to find ways to wake up the electorate. This may be the most important election in our lifetime, because our very democracy is at stake. Another mandate for Stephen Harper, or worse still, a majority, will send him the message that Parliament doesn't matter. Democracy doesn't matter. And we don't matter.

Think about that.


1. The Debate About Compulsory Voting , By: John C. Courtney and Drew Wilby, The Canadian Parliamentary Review, Summer 2005

2. May 10, 2005

3. Hard Right Turn: The New Face of Neo-Conservatism in Canada, Brooke Jeffrey, Harper-Collins, 1999, ISBN: 0-00 255762-2, Pg. 22

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