HALIFAX – Voter apathy and low turnout are not uniquely Haligonian challenges. We are mired in a democracy-crippling race to the bottom, with the federal election in 2008 reaching record-low turnout at 59.1%. In the province’s summer-2009 election, so eagerly anticipated and vigorously discussed, voter turnout was another record low for the province: 57.95%. Turnout of two in three people, however, would be a victory for HRM’s municipal elections. During the 2008 election, the result of which shaped HRM’s current council, only one in three of us rocked the vote, and the sitting council was elected by a measly turnout of 36.3%.
In the past month, the results of two surveys on council size and performance have been released. The first finds a fairly even split between those who are satisfied and dissatisfied with council (if 1 to 5 is dissatisfied, and 6 to 10 satisfied), with a majority indicating dissatisfaction with the Mayor, and 56% preferring a reduction in council size. The second finds that 83% of Haligonians prefer a smaller council, and of those, 62% prefer a council of 15 or fewer councillors.
The results of the first survey are misleading. The same questionnaire found that 81% of respondents voted in the last election; compare that number with the 36.3% of registered voters who actually voted. These results suggest one of two cases: either respondents claimed they voted when they didn’t or they don’t comprise a random sample of Haligonians.
If surveys about council size, satisfaction with the Mayor, roundabouts, the proposed convention centre, concerts on the Commons, and so on, make purportedly valid claims about public support, we should be clear on whose voice they represent. With 81% of survey respondents having voted in the last election, the sample is clearly the already-engaged. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, if we want to know how those who voted feel – and as well we should: they did, after all, choose the Mayor and council. But of those who didn’t vote, both when it comes to these surveys and for whom they might have voted, we are left with an incomplete picture of how Halifax could look if they had voted.
Low voter turnout dilutes democracy. It enables a vocal minority, like, say, 36.3%, to dictate the decisions of those who also represent the other two-thirds of the population. Voter apathy also sanctions elected officials to stray from the preferences of his or her constituents, either knowingly or unknowingly, simply because so few are engaged in the political process at all.
To its credit, HRM experimented with phone and e-voting during the most recent election as a means of increasing accessibility. But alternate methods of voting, along with the well publicized but clearly ineffective D250 campaign, treat only a symptom of a far greater problem.
And what is the problem? Is it broad and overarching, and we feel that the whole system is so irreparably broken that our vote doesn’t make a difference? Is there not a candidate that we feel represents us adequately, or might it be that our preferred candidate is a shoe-in, so we don’t bother? Did we not have time to fully evaluate or choices, so thought it most responsible to refrain from voting at all?
Or is it for mundane, but no less detrimental, reasons like we didn’t know where our polling station was, we forgot, or we didn’t know it was election day in the first place?
For me, frankly, it was mostly laziness. I knew vaguely that an election was looming, but didn’t know when exactly (and besides, I was in school, so I’m sure I was, like, totally busy or something). But this personal renaissance of engagement – I will assuredly be voting in 2012 – is due more to a now-territorial conviction that I don’t want anyone else speaking for me, and a belief that individuals who cast a vote should be able to influence their representatives’ positions – or at least complain with legitimacy.
But that’s just me, and voter turnout is likely influenced by everything from frustration to literacy to disenchantment to feelings of futility. So if you count yourself among this non-voting majority, what would get you to the polls?