Fraser Forum

William Watson: Vote or don’t—it’s our choice as Canadians

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We’re coming to the end of a federal election campaign in Canada, and as always commentators and politicians alike are urging us to vote and telling us how important it is that we do so. My own view is that if your attention or information level is so low that you must be reminded what a treasure your democratic birthright is—how rare a thing it is in the history of our species—maybe we don’t actually want you voting.

To say nothing of the fact that if you’ll be voting for a party other than the one I favour, or if you haven’t been following the campaign and know very little about the issues or the party platforms, staying home might really be best. I naturally want my vote to count more and it will count more if you don’t offset it by casting your ballot, possibly thoughtlessly, for someone else. Even the ill-informed and unwise do of course have a perfect right to vote. We don’t want a poll test or tax for voting (even if poll taxes have very desirable economic efficiency properties). Voting is your right. But I certainly don’t favour a law that would fine you for not voting, along the Australian model, or pay you for voting, in what almost certainly would be the kinder, gentler Canadian variant of that model. If people who don’t feel informed enough to make a considered decision choose to stay out of the process, that’s up to them.

As for me, I will definitely be voting, as I’m pretty sure I have done (memories do fade) in every federal and provincial election, plus two Quebec referenda, since I came of voting age. At one time or another I have voted for all three major parties (we learn best from error!). It’s also true that no vote I participated in was won by my one vote—though the 1995 Quebec referendum was very close, albeit not as close as it would have been without voting irregularities.

That second Quebec referendum lends perspective to the widely-lamented decline in turnout. It was only two decades ago. Society wasn’t all that different than it is today. But turnout was 93.5 per cent. Why? Because the stakes were high. No one was sure exactly what the stakes were but they were clearly high. When that’s true, people come out. Or at least Quebecers did then and I’m pretty sure all Canadians would today in similar circumstances.

If people aren’t coming out for elections, that may simply mean they don’t care that much about the outcome. You often hear the complaint that there are no differences among the parties. That’s just laziness. There are important differences among the parties. But democratic voting systems do tend to push parties toward the centre. In the current Canadian campaign, the Conservatives are less market-oriented than many of us would like, while the NDP has also headed middle-ward in ways that apparently have alienated many of its long-time supporters. Only the Liberals, who as of this writing are ahead, moved away from their traditional campground in the centre, though they did so mainly to differentiate their product, quite possibly at a time when even they thought their chances of winning were slim.

Though I’ve never decided an election and never expect to, I do continue to vote. In their millions, other Canadians don’t. Why do I keep showing up if voting isn’t really rational (time and energy being expended with no evident return)?

Several reasons.

Politics is a great spectator sport but it’s one that occasionally allows you out onto the field. What fan can resist that? It’s a wonderful ritual, reminding us of the considerable achievement self-government is, and the power we ordinary citizens really do have. It’s a social occasion. The results do have consequences. With all the candidates and thousands of others putting themselves out—for all sorts of reasons no doubt, but in good part for our benefit—showing up for a half hour seems the least we can do.

But if you prefer other spectator sports; if you are content to accept whatever outcome the rest of us produce; and, most importantly, if don’t want to take the time to inform yourself about things you don’t actually think you can have much influence over, well, more power (or really less power) to you. Choice is what it’s all about.


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