Communities Need Voters

31 03 2011

Canadians once again go to the polls to elect a federal government on May 2nd. Whether you like the notion of another election or not, there’s no getting around the simple fact that voting is a cornerstone of democracy. Many Canadians have stayed home in past elections, resulting in an embarassingly low voter turnout. We’ll need to change that if this is to remain a stable democracy. Just as important, communities need their residents to get out and vote.

“One of our duties and privileges of citizens in a democracy is to cast a ballot. This is what we do to resolve our differences and give direction to our leaders. We vote.” That’s the Edmonton Journal’s Graham Thomson’s take on it. “One of the best defences against oppression is democracy. We’ve had three elections since 2004 because the people of Canada in their collective wisdom elected back-to-back-to-back minority governments (once to the Liberals and two most recently to the Conservatives). Get involved, even if that means simply reading the papers or watching the news. Ask -heck, grill -your local candidates about issues you care about whether that’s health care, jobs, the environment, the Libyan mission or…”.

Thomson’s comments on March 26 sparked a lively seesaw of opinions. But it isn’t so much whether we agree with him about the way to exercise our democratic privilege as it is about the fact that we have a democratic privilege. Cliché or not, it’s about the hard-won right to put your mark on a ballot. It’s also about surrendering your right to complain or criticize if you don’t participate in the democratic process.

Municipal voter turnout has traditionally been the lowest, an ironic and sad reality given that most of us are more closely tuned-in to local issues than to provincial or federal ones. But remember that many of the issues we grapple with locally have trickle-down influences from provincial and federal levels. Economic policy can be tied to local communities just as surely as immigration policies can impact a multicultural city such as Hamilton. The Hamilton Spectator’s Code Red series included a call for getting the vote out and pointed to the (then) fledgling Hamilton Civic League’s work to encourage Hamiltonians to vote. The group identified four segments of the population that vote in disproportionately low numbers: renters, people living in poverty, students and young people, and new Canadians, even after they’ve obtained citizenship.

Younger people (those under 35) are the group least likely to cast a ballot. Sadly, that’s due in part to our failure to educate and engage them in the democratic landscape. Finding ways to encourage young voters is something that ultimately helps us all. The Ottawa Citizen, in 2006, referred to it as exercising your franchise: “It conjures up images of voters wheezing on treadmills or pumping iron, desperately trying to whip their flabby democratic muscles into shape. But on reflection, the expression is really quite apt. After all, the act of voting is how citizens keep their democracy fit. Without the workout of an election, democracy would quickly sink into morbid obesity.” Maybe the idea that voting is fitness will attract more people to the polls on May 2nd, and on every election day after that.

See www.rockthevote.com (U.S. organization dedicated to engaging and building the political power of young people). Watch for “Get Out the Vote Canada” (a Facebook page).

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