By Kyle Muzyka
Within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, underneath the Democratic Rights section, sits a right that most Canadians are familiar with: the right to vote.
It is a right that was fought for by the likes of Nellie McClung and James Gladstone, both of which fought for women’s and Aboriginal’s voting rights, respectively.
It is a right that, since 1982, has been guaranteed to all adult citizens by the Charter.
And yet, it is a right that is underused.
Casting a vote does not sound strenuous in theory, but it is evidently a right that is often passed over by Canadian citizens. Voting in federal elections has dropped an average of 1.8 per cent in every election since 1988, according to Elections Canada. There have been nine federal votes in the time period (including a referendum in 1992) with a majority of the results being lower than the last.
The potential cause has been linked to a variety of potential culprits.
Blaming the future
Voters aged 18-24 are often blamed for a dwindling voter turnout. Those within the age group are pegged as apathetic citizens who cannot be bothered to cast a vote in an election.
The data supports this. A study performed by the Government of Canada that carries data between 1965 and 2000 shows those within the age range of 18-24 are consistently on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of voter turnout, with a steady downtrend visible.
Cam McCoy, President of the Students’ Union at MacEwan University, also shares this view. “I would say our generation doesn’t see the value in voting,” he says.
According to Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada, studies were conducted with Canadian youth regarding why they did not cast a ballot. The most common answers were accessibility, but also cited they lacked motivation to overcome any barrier standing in their way.
“They [those aged 18-24] were generally less interested in politics, less likely to view voting as a civic duty, and more likely to feel that all political parties were the same and that no party spoke to issues relevant to youth,” Mayrand wrote.
Yet, the demographic scapegoating in fact acts as a representative of the larger problem: Canadians in general are voting less.
Some say the reason Canadians are voting less is because they are generally uneducated about the candidates and what they advocate. Certainly, young Canadians are the face of this particular reasoning, but considering the fact that there is a general decline in voter turnout, rather than simply a decline in youth voting, it suggests youth are not the only uneducated voters.
Or, perhaps it means there is more than simply lack of education standing in the way of a higher voter turnout.
Lack of confidence in parliament
In a study performed in 2007 by The Conference Board of Canada, it gave Canada a “C” letter grade in Canadians’ confidence in parliament.
Confidence in parliament “is crucial for the stability of societies and for the functioning of democracy,” according to the Conference Board of Canada.
Matthew McKean of the National Post argued the reason why Canadians are not voting is because they simply do not trust their government to make changes.
“A government that is out of touch with the collective concerns and everyday realities of its citizens will stifle public confidence and voter engagement,” he wrote.
Simply put, if Canadians do not trust the government to have the best Canadian interest in mind, how can they be expected to cast an informed vote?
Gaelan Murphy, a political science instructor at MacEwan University, believes supporting government is difficult if citizens view it as flawed. “There’s a dysfunctional parliament, a dysfunctional court system, and the Supreme Court interprets the Charter,” Murphy says, as he lists off some issues he has within the Canadian political realm.
According to a 2003 study conducted by Pammett and LeDuc, 16 per cent of those who did not vote in the 2000 federal election cited a negative attitude towards the government.
In addition to the system being viewed as flawed, Canadians also view the politicians within it as flawed as well. In the same study, 25 per cent of non-voters cited negative views of politicians as the reason behind not voting.
In a perfect world, all politicians would have the best interest of Canadians in mind, and unfortunately, Canadians do not seem to feel they do.
No one worth voting for
It is challenging enough to find a single person that shares similar beliefs in all aspects of life. Finding one that is the leader of a political party is borderline impossible. Many cite this as an issue for the vote decline.
Democracy was never about finding someone that represented every single belief a person has, but finding the one that most closely coincides with a person’s view. Unfortunately, voters are relating less and less to political leaders, specifically in the younger demographics.
This could be for a variety of reasons: age difference, difference in attitude, or, as a piece in The Economist said, “Young people — who tend to be more cosmopolitan, liberal and hopeful than their elders — tend to be switched off by the negativity and cynicism of election campaigns targeting the unhappy old.”
Few political leaders bridge the relatability gap. The Economist wrote that President of the United States Barack Obama bridged that gap in 2008 and 2012, considering his higher turnout amongst youth. In general, when voters have a difficult time relating to a particular politician, they are less inclined to vote for them.
Young voters related more to President Obama likely because he looked a lot younger himself. He related to young people much more than opposition John McCain, who was 26 years his senior.
A study conducted in 2000 by Elisabeth Gidengil concluded that leaders of particular parties “have a significant independent impact on vote choice in Canada.” However, the leader of a particular party being relatable to voters is just half the battle; the other half is the party itself.
Parties have always been a part of Canadian politics. However, some, like MacEwan instructor Murphy, believe they are part of the problem.
“It [party politics] encourages partisanship and the idea that everyone’s interests are represented by a party,” he says.
“I think the party system is dysfunctional, and the elections contribute to that.”
Elections cause appeasement, where solutions to issues at hand will fit the agenda of those that the candidate is targeting. As an example, some believe the reason universities are seeing tuition hikes is because the youth voice is not loud enough, therefore irrelevant to those looking to get elected.
Though Murphy disagrees that priority is given based on who is most likely to vote, he does believe that consulting the public using referenda and plebiscites is not the best method to gauge what the public desires.
“We should be asking people what they want less often,” he says.
“When politicians are too responsive to [public opinion], there is a bit of pandering.”
Murphy believes that when there is an issue and multiple methods to solve it, the situation often worsens, because the politician should make the decision based on what he/she believes is best, rather than bureaucratically make a decision based on multiple “best methods” that could take months to sift through. After all, that is why they were elected in the first place.
The above scenario is all based on the idea that voters even care about that particular issue; sometimes, that is simply not the case. There are issues that do not concern voters, simply because they do not affect their everyday lives.
Irrelevancy in policy
Federal politics often provide the most ammunition for those that argue that some politics are simply unimportant. Professor Murphy believes this is the case; simply put, time can be spent elsewhere.
“I think that people who are active in elections put too much of their faith in the electoral process and not enough in areas that matter more,” Murphy says. If a potential voter wants something to change, he or she can cast a vote for a politician who will make the change, but cannot sit back and wait for the government to fix the problem. Instead, getting involved with an advocacy group may facilitate a quicker change.
MacEwan Students’ Association President McCoy shares this thought. “Do I think it [voting] is the loudest place to get your voice heard? No,” he says. Advocacy groups, in addition to getting involved with particular parties are methods McCoy suggests as alternatives to voting and then just sitting back.
Unfortunately for some voters, the task of changing for the better seems insurmountable. As a result, they view politics as irrelevant. A 2015 study performed by Samara Canada showed that 31 per cent of Canadians polled believed that politics did not affect them on a day-to-day basis.
Murphy believes that this is the case, especially within federal politics. Municipal elections are most likely to directly affect a voter’s day-to-day lives, as they would often see tangible differences within their neighbourhood. This is why he finds it ironic that they consistently have the lowest voter turnout out, below that of provincial and federal elections.
McCoy, though he understands the point Murphy makes in terms of what is most relevant, would disagree, saying federal politics should be the most important to Canadians.
“Federal always has that last call,” McCoy says, though not in all areas.
However, simply put, there are bills the federal government may pass that do not necessarily affect everyday life. Take the elimination of protection on select lakes and rivers within Canada in Bill C-45. It may be an issue that upsets many Canadians, but in general, the problem does not affect everyday life, making the decision irrelevant to those unaware of the problem.
Murphy argues that, in a mass state such as Canada, it is nearly impossible for federal politics to matter to all Canadians.
“It’s people’s business to take care of their own lives. There’s no public business [in federal politics],” he says. In places where there are small groups of people, such as towns or villages, it is much easier for public business to exist. In the second largest country geographically in the world, it is much more difficult.
The idea of irrelevancy makes it a challenge to convince Canadians to vote; and so, as we come full circle in this discussion, an additional question must be explored: “Is a 60 per cent voter turnout in a federal election even a problem?”
Murphy does not think it is.
Eighty per cent voter turnout “practically impossible”
“The importance of voting is kind of complicated. There are times where it isn’t important at all, and there are times where it is,” Murphy says. He is satisfied with a 60 per cent voter turnout, as he feels it is difficult to coerce that many Canadians to do the same thing on any given day.
Murphy provides a scenario: if a neighbourhood were to need new sidewalks, and the city councillors went door-to-door to ask residents’ opinions on the subject, Murphy believes that even then it would be difficult to reach 80 per cent of the residents, despite the issue directly affecting them.
Simply put, all mass states are disengaged from voters to some degree.
Additionally, Murphy believes that a lower turnout can be considered a good thing. In a study conducted by Electoral Democracy, it was concluded that citizens are more likely to vote (and vote for an opposing party) if the country had recently seen an economic crisis of sorts.
“Economic voting theory predicts that during a real or perceived economic downturn, people hold the incumbent government responsible for the bad economic situation and punish it by casting a vote for an opposition party,” the study said.
“People vote at high numbers in crises,” Murphy says. Despite the agreement between the previous sources, election results in Canada say otherwise. Canada saw a 5.9 per cent decrease between the 2006 and 2008 federal elections. The 2008 financial crisis was one of the hot-button topics during that election, and contradictory to the previous study mentioned, voter turnout actually decreased, though the full extent of the economic downturn was not felt until after the election.
Though the voter turnout could have declined for a multitude of reasons, the statistics point to Canadians being less likely to vote in times of crises.
How we fix the (potential) problem
The idea of 60 per cent of Canadians hitting the polls is alarming to some, but relaxing to others. Polarizing viewpoints, such as those expressed by both McCoy and Murphy, also exist elsewhere.
Those who side with Murphy argue that the electoral process does not need to change; rather, the politicians themselves, as well as citizens’ priorities, are more likely in need of change.
However, those in McCoy’s camp view the 60 per cent voter turnout as a problem that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific policy change to encourage more Canadians to vote.
Australia, one of the most similar countries to Canada, implemented compulsory voting, which helps them yield above 90 per cent in their elections. Murphy does not believe in compulsory voting, and even those that wish for a higher turnout may not like the idea of forcing a vote.
Instead, McCoy and others look for alternative ways to encourage Canadians to voluntarily vote. Groups such as the Get Out The Vote campaign encourage young adults to make an informed decision in an election, and not just because youth are more likely to not vote in federal elections; rather, the group is looking to instil the practice of voting in young adults to help make them voters for life.
“Voting takes 10 minutes; seven to educate yourself about the policies, and three to cast that vote,” McCoy says.
“If you want to spend your time elsewhere [in advocacy groups], go to bed 10 minutes later.”
Some have argued McClung’s efforts have gone to waste if women do not vote; that Gladstone’s battles were all wasted time when Aboriginals do not vote. Those who are fighting wars overseas are risking their lives so citizens can have rights and freedoms, and if voters refuse to exercise their right, they are fighting for not for democratic freedom, but an elite oligarchy.
But consider this: perhaps the likes of McClung, Gladstone, and, to a more broad extent, the Canadian Armed Forces, are not fighting for your right to vote; rather, they are fighting for your right to choose to vote. A citizen has just as much right to refuse to vote than cast one.
In an article written for CBC, Janet Brown suggests, “If you don’t see the value in voting perhaps you should just stay home.” She says she would much rather see a smaller voter turnout of informed voters than a larger one comprised of uninformed citizens.
The reasoning makes sense, but those who want to see an increase in voter turnout are looking to educate the potentially uneducated, not throw them in polling booths without a clue.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election.” That could mean a right to vote, or a right to choose to vote.
Perhaps we will leave the Supreme Court of Canada to interpret that one.