I want to start off by saying that I cannot be more emphatic in my disgust with people (partisan Liberals, particularly) who are already sniping from the sidelines about Alberta's status as a "banana republic". Those same people, had THEIR chosen party won this election, would be trumpeting from the rooftops about how democracy had saved all of us from the evil Tories... so, save it. I have little interest in the partisan point of view on this issue. The issue of our democratic system, and its ridiculously low rate of participation, goes beyond petty partisan politics.
I was accused recently of being a "PC Fanboy", and the PC's won 72 seats on Monday night. As a "PC Fanboy", I should be on top of the world at that result - and yet, I'm stuck between "embarrassed" and "disheartened".
What I want to address is: what's wrong with our system, and what can we do to fix it?
The first assumption that I'm making, right off the bat, is that there's something wrong. This could be erroneous on its face. In a discussion I had with a friend this evening, the topic of voter turn-out came up, and he expressed to me his belief that the 59% of voters who didn't come out and vote expressed their tacit approval for the job the government has been doing. "Had they been disapproving of the government, they would have shown up and kicked the bastards out!" went the argument.
While I don't accept the logic of staying home to register approval, I do acknowledge it may in fact be reflective of the reality - thankfully, most Albertans don't think the same way I do, or NOTHING would get done, and everyone would be chasing my fiancee.
So, this brings up the question: IS something wrong? Or am I just thick and missing the obvious, that the people who didn't vote were, for the most part, happy with the government and saw no need to cast a ballot? We've seen voters turn-outs get lower and lower with every trip to the polls, at least provincially, since 1993. Is this an expression of satisfaction with the governance that people have been receiving? Or an indication that voters are becoming disengaged?
If it's a tacit admission of satisfaction, then our discussion is over. And what fun is that? So we'll dismiss that argument - for now - and move on to the next train of thought.
We're accepting that something is happening to disengage the voter. Now, we have to ask ourselves whether the problem lies in the system (people WANT to vote, but can't), or in the voters themselves (they don't want to vote).
Some criticism is made of the system. People say that they WANT to participate by casting a ballot, but they can't. Their work shifts don't allow it, they don't know where to vote, Elections Alberta's website crashed, they were out of the country on a trip planned weeks before the writ was dropped... Some suggestions that may alleviate some of those concerns include:
- Allow computer voting, much as we allow people to file their taxes on-line
- Extend polling day to 2 or 3 days
- Fix the voter's list, so people are registered in the correct riding and poll
- Utilize fixed election dates, so everyone knows when the next vote is being held, 4 years in advance
Some ideas that have been bandied about as possible solutions to this issue (many of which I personally think are disasters):
- Institute Australian-style mandatory voting
- Offer tax or other incentives for proof-of-voting
- Allow "write-in" votes on the ballot
- Actually put a "none of the above" box on the ballot
- Require a series of leaders debates, including the leaders of all registered parties running more than 50 candidates.
- Institute term limits
- Run elections completely on equal, public funding to eliminate the "corporate" campaigning we see today
- Eliminate the party system altogether
- De-politicize the mechanisms of election altogether - empower Elections Alberta to hire full-time Electoral Officers whose sole job it is to recruit, interview, select and train Returning Officers and Poll Staff in the 6 months before the regularly scheduled election date.
- Directly elect a Chief Executive (in this case, the Lt. Governor), rather than letting the British Parliamentary system figure out, irrespective of the public's wishes, who the singular de facto chief executive and head of the legislative branch of our province shall be
- Switch from FPTP to Proportional Representation, or MMP
- Lower the voting age to 16
- Dramatically increase the number of seats in the Legislature, thus making the ridings smaller and the MLA's and candidates more directly responsible (and responsive) to smaller communities of people
- Sync-up the provincial and municipal elections, to get all the voting out of the way at the same time
Nation, I don't know what the solutions are... for that matter, I don't know what the problems are. I have always been keenly interested in politics, and never for a moment have considered abstaining from casting a vote. It was drilled into me by both parents, who come from military families - and by a Social Studies teacher who came from a place where he was denied the ability to vote, because his skin was the wrong colour.
The concept that some people can be politically educated, aware of the issues, follow the race and the policies of the parties, and still choose to stay home is utterly foreign to me - I know people do it, in fact the discussion is happening on my blog right now - but I'd be lying if I said I understood it. I'm about asking questions right now.
Do people not WANT to vote? Or are people waiting to find someone whom they deem worthy of their ballot? Do we need our own "Obama Effect" here in Alberta to get these abstainers out to the polls? Do we need to make the information which people require in order to make an informed choice more readily available to them? Do we need to change the system, because they feel that their vote makes no difference?
I don't know the answer to that. Again, the concept of not voting is as foreign to me as the idea of driving through someone's home - it's the small price I pay, the minor inconvenience, for the freedoms I enjoy. It's an obligation and responsibility that I take seriously.
I will tell you this, though...
I intend to run for provincial office in 2012(ish). And I will state, unequivocally and for the record, that I would rather LOSE my run for office with a 80+% voter turn-out than WIN it with a turn-out of 40%. Being elected by 45% of 40% of eligible voters is not, in my mind, a strong mandate. ESPECIALLY as a non-incumbent - I can't even fool myself into thinking that the 60% who stay home are approving of me - I haven't done anything yet of which to approve.
However, what are the politicians supposed to do, given this turn-out? Declare the election void because a quorum wasn't reached, and run the whole thing all over? I won't be HAPPY with 45% of 40%... but if that's who comes out, and I win, I'll serve. I'll just know in my heart that 8 out of 10 people didn't express, in one of the easiest ways possible, that I had their consent to govern them. And that will bother me - a LOT.