Right, Privilege, or Obligation?

By Jason Menard

It’s a good thing the skies were clear across the country for Monday’s federal election – one would have hated to see how much lower voter turnout would have been with a little inclement weather. But thanks to those clear skies, it’s plain to see that if so few of us choose to vote, maybe that privilege should no longer be available.

Preliminary numbers indicate that approximately 65 per cent of registered Canadian voters exercised their democratic right to vote. But before we go patting ourselves on the back for the slight increase in voter turnout at this year’s election, we must realize that a little better than unacceptable is still unacceptable.

Less than two-thirds is just not good enough and perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of voting as a democratic right, but rather as a civic obligation.

Most tellingly, our apathy towards the electoral process shows how little appreciation we have for the lifestyle we live and how little respect we have for those who fight each and every day for the very right we take for granted. Voters in some countries brave the very real risk of casting a ballot under a hail of bullets – and yet a simple hail storm can have disastrous effects on the number of votes cast in this country.

Canada ranks an embarrassing 77 th out of 172 countries for voter turnout, according to a list published by Sweden’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. The list compiles statistics from all Presidential and Parliamentary elections since 1945 and finds that Canada has averaged 68.4 per cent in voter turnout – and we appear to be working hard to lower that number with each and every passing election. On the bright side, we’re better than Mali, where only 21.7 per cent of voters turn out, but we’re shamed by the Italians, who come out in droves on election day to the tune of 92.5 per cent.

Of course, the Italians have long place innocuous sanctions against those who choose not to vote. Essentially, those who choose not to vote may have a tougher time getting access to government services. In Belgium, they go a step further. With the world’s oldest compulsory voting system, which was established in 1892 for men and 1949 for women, Belgians aged 18 or old who choose not to vote may be levied with a small fine. More importantly, if they fail to cast a ballot in at least four elections, then they lose the right to vote for 10 years.

Other countries have similar formal and non-formal sanctions, and the practice is hotly debated in each and every country. That being said, according to International IDEA, 84.9 per cent of Belgians get out and vote.

So what’s the answer? Politicians and non-governmental organizations have tried every trick under the sun to engage the electorate in the process. Polling stations are set up so conveniently that people can basically crawl to the ballot box – and, of course, if you need a little help getting to the vote, the political parties will fall all over themselves trying to get you there.

But how do you cure apathy about the process? It’s clear that there’s no apathy about the government, because while only two-thirds of us vote, a much higher percentage feels free to vent our opinions. So it’s the actual process of getting to the ballot box that is the impediment.

Forcing people to go to vote with sanctions is not the right answer. You have to weigh what’s better: a smaller voter turnout with people who are engaged in the process and, hopefully, knowledgeable about who they’re casting a ballot for; or a larger cross-section of people, some of whom may spoil the ballot or cast protest votes out of spite?

Maybe the Belgians have it right. Voting is your privilege in a free society, but if you don’t use it you lose it. To maintain the right to vote, you have an obligation to exercise it.

After all, the small amount of work it takes to make and execute an informed choice in an election pales in comparison with the Herculean efforts other people in this world go through just to exercise the very right that so many of us take for granted.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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