Thursday, March 6, 2008

Jean-Luc Picard To Alberta Voters: "Engage!"

This one goes out to Four Strong Winds. Commitment made, commitment delivered. :)

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
Quite a bit more people, however, indicate that they have no desire to get out and vote. The problem with this approach, of course, is that there's no way to know whether the 59% of voters who stayed home on March 3rd did so because they were satisfied, or did so out of protest, or were underinformed, or were lazy... there are no statistics on what kept people at home.

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.


Kirk Schmidt said...


I'll touch on this later, but I worry greatly about any possible attempt to set up online voting in the short term. There *are* cryptographic schemes that we can use to ensure paper ballots are in fact marking what you want them to (and understand, we *still* need paper copies. Refer to Dr. Aviel Rubin's book "Brave New Ballot" for more), but it's going to require some massive infrastructure changes - it's not a short term solution, and if we try to implement it as such, we're in for one hell of a ride.

[Please keep in mind that I am a computer geek and mathematician]

Anonymous said...

You talkin' to me Judy?

Anonymous said...

I think the argument that had they disapproved, they would have showed up and kicked the bastard out misses two key feelings that I think are present in the electorate of Alberta:

1. The election is a foregone conclusion. PC's will win. The only way to avoid disappointment is to not get too involved. (Unfortunately, I know of no way to combat this view other than a complete shake-up of the voting system to allow people to believe that "in the new system" their vote will matter.)

2. The current government is bad, but there are no credible options out there either. Why waste my time voting for something I don't want anyway?

Now I understand this second viewpoint, but think it's primarily espoused by those who haven't done the work looking up the parties and candidates in their area -- there is certainly enough choice out there among the groups. Unfortunately, that points out another failing, why on earth are the electorate having to work to find out the policies of their candidates? You'd think those running would be all over themselves trying to get their positions out there, yet in my riding I received 2 automated telephone calls saying little more than "VOTE FOR ME!" (one PC, one LIberal) which is fucking juvenile and insulting to an intelligent voter, 1 personal call from the PC campaign call-centre by someone who had no information on the candidate's actual policies, and 1 brochure from the PC candidate providing a very small amount of info in addition to the riding map and location of my polling station. Incidentally, that brochure landed on election day -- a nice bit of timing/campaign planning. But that's it! Nothing from the Greens, nothing from the NDP or WAP, no platform information on *any* party. It was quite simply pathetic. And from what I'm hearing, that's actually more contact than most people in Alberta received.

If the parties are going to rely on media soundbites for their campaigning, they should not be surprised that the voting turnout has the same amount of depth.

Personally, I held my nose and voted Liberal on the slim hope that strategic voting might oust the PC incumbant. It failed. I prefer the Green Party policies, but their lack of recognition means that they often have to accept anybody who puts up their hand to be a candidate -- not a good situation for getting great candidates, and hampering my willingness to vote for them.

So how do we combat this? One way is to provide some public service to each party. Would it be difficult to print up a poster sized laminated sheets for each candidate to hang in polling stations outlining their positions and promises? I think if people knew they could get the information in that kind of digest form it might bring more out to the polls.

Glen said...

I'm not one of those guys talking about a "banana republic" and I do think Stelmach has a very big mandate.

However, one of the most important things the Tories could do now to show they care about the state of democracy in this province is call a citizen's assembly. Let's at least start to have the discussion.

son of gaia said...

Low turn-out will obviously have a variety of component causes. One is very likely to be complacency on the part of people who think everything is going well, for them and for the province.

Another component cause is likely to be, a perception that: regardless of what candidate or party you vote for, government agendas and policies will be set by corporate, social or non-profit technocrat elites - a perception that is largely correct.

Even professional policy researchers recognize the truth underlying this perception. Read through "Fostering Canadians Role In Public Policy":

for revealing statements like this:
"Predictably, policy elites –politicians, public servants, and stakeholder groups alike – are resistant to increased public involvement, and for a number of reasons.
Many are reluctant to give up control over the policy agenda and some believe that citizens are not sufficiently informed to make a valuable contribution to policy

Many people become discouraged with the whole electoral process after years of struggling unsuccessfully to get some issue, problem or cause addressed by (or simply acknowledged by) governments, while simultaneously watching policy issues of importance to business or non-profit special interests get fast-tracked and passed - ahead of legislation promised in election campaigns 3, 5 or 10 years before!

A similar problem that causes people to give up on our political system, is the failure of backbenchers in the ruling party and/or members of the opposition parties to raise and air the concerns of citizens who are opposed to government legislation. If every member of every party is going to function as a cheerleading squad for the party in power, what is the point of voting for anyone other than the cabinet ministers of that party?

Having the right to vote can seem pointless & meaningless if all parties hold the same (or very similar) positions on issues of importance to you - and all of their elected members are constrained from expressing any dissent by "party unity" enforcement. People can end up feeling like the unfortunates in the old Soviet Union - they had the right to vote, but every candidate they had to choose from belonged to the same (Communist) Party. What is the point of voting under such conditions?

Roy Harrold

MgS said...


One thought - it's clear that things are seriously broken. Around 20% of the electorate chose the direction for all of us.

Over 75% of vote-eligible Albertans did not vote for the PC's.

No matter how I slice it, it's damned hard to call that representative democracy.

Enlightened Savage said...

Grog: I'll agree that things are broken.

However, let's keep in mind that while only 25% of vote-eligible Albertans marked a ballot for the PC's on election day, the next highest turn-out was the Liberals, at only 1 in 10. So we do, as the system is designed, have a government made up of the party for whom the greatest number of Albertans bothered to vote.

How do you propose choosing a government that is truly representative if the people aren't willing to participate?

Anonymous said...

If others want to be serfs and disenfranchise themselves ("self-serfing? :), then so be it. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink pretty well sums it up. As long as information on when and where to vote is easily available, the polling stations are reasonab;y accessible, and the choices of candidates are clearly and fairly stated, officials have done their job.

Some people are bemoaning a 41% turnout and a 52.7% vote in favour of the PCs as meaning the election lacks legitmacy... the famed "22% of eligible voters voted for the PCs". Would these same people then run the numbers and say that 90% of eligible voters do not favour the Liberals? It is silly math. You vote = you count. You don't vote = you don't count.

If I vote, and others do not, mathematically my vote is worth more. Mandatory voting is surely not the way to go. Why do I want some shmuck who took all of five seconds to mark a ballot - for no other reason than to avoid a fine - dilute the power of my vote?

What we are forgetting in this discussion is that the decision to vote/not vote is entirely voluntary. If you want to buy cheap milk, you go to Real Canadian Superstore. You want it quick, with no line up and little effort, you go to 7-11 and pay more for the convenience. This is not so different from voting/not voting. I think not voting because you are saving an hour or so of your personal time is a bad deal, but who am I to decide for another person?

Kirk Schmidt said...

Anon @3:56:

You make a very important point - we can't decide for other voters whether they should vote (although, ironically, because they didn't vote, we make the decision of who is government for them)

Nonetheless, the real question is what percentage of non-voters didn't vote for reasons that weren't 'saving an hour'? I think it was after the 2004 Federal Election that EC commissioned a study, and something like 40% of younger voters who didn't vote did not feel that they had enough information about the candidates.

While you and I know where to go to get such information (and I'm posting on that weblog NOW!), sometimes the sheer amount of electoral information creates overload - or some people just don't really know where to go for it.

What we need to do is get to the root causes of whatever reason people don't vote. People on this forum and others have said it's sometimes the lack of any option that they feel is good, others I've talked to simply don't care. Obviously, those are root causes that likely cannot be fixed without larger changes. However, if it's something like - oh, I don't know, say an Elections Authority's website goes down for several hours on election day, and is basically the primary source of 'where you vote', that's something that can be addressed (for the record, it's not just EA that has website trouble. The federal finance dept didn't seem to have expected the server load on budget day, and there were massive lags)

Anonymous said...

You make a good point about the website. Elections Alberta dropped the ball in this and in other aspects of administration, though I will grant that voter enumeration is pretty difficult given the growth we have seen in Alberta's largest cities since 2004. Who knows... maybe we ought not to pick some dude from Manitoba as our Chief Electoral Officer ;-)

However, turnout in this election is not substantially different from last one (slightly lower, but I don't believe statistically significant). So that cannot be the entire reason.

You make another interesting point about information: not enough, or overload? But again, I don't think that squares for the majority of non-voters. A lot of people are - to put it bluntly - ignorant. They have no concept and no interest, in domestic and international current events.

Global TV Calgary ran an experiment the day after the writ was dropped. They ran around downtown with a picture of three men: Kevin Taft, John McCain, and Brian Mason. Global asked random people they encountered who these men were. Now I grant I am more interested in politics than the average bear, but some people could not pick out ANY of the three, even if the names were supplied and they had to guess to which face it belonged. And this is after prior day's evening news was all about the election call and that morning Kevin Taft and Ed Stelmach shared the front page of the Calgary Herald (and probably the Calgary Sun). So go figure.

It is also curious as to why - on average - voter turnout is higher outside of the major cities. I thought these urban folks are supposed to be the sophisticated ones.

Anonymous said...

I attempted to go vote after work on March 3. I showed up at the voter's station and what did I discover? A line up that went out the door and halfway around the parking lot. I saw this and turned around and went back to my truck.

The other concern that I have is that while I have always voted PC, I think that the current leader is a muppet. If there was a way to vote for the party, but vote for the leader that I preferred, I'd be much more willing to take the time to vote.

Anonymous said...

I know that this might be a message gone unnoticed. But I would like to say at this time, after having heavily observed the Savage's election analysis's from the end of January, that I consider this spear-thrower to be the most astute, publically available political analyst in Alberta.

Dan Johnson, Wildrose Alliance member.