Regina Leader-Post, Thursday, June 24, 2004 (in an edited version)
Voter obstruction, not "voter apathy"
by Marjaleena Repo
Lately extraordinary media attention is being paid to "voter apathy," and no wonder, as in a remarkably short time the turnout of eligible voters has dropped from 75% in 1988 to 61.2% in 2000, heading towards the U.S. rates of ca 40%.
Lack of civics in our schools is blamed; or a weakened sense of citizenship in the country (and perhaps in the western world); or just people's busy lives. Mostly the blame goes to "politics" which is experienced as meaningless and alienating and on politicians who make and break their promises, as they see fit.
But to understand why people are not voting, one must also understand, concretely, what prevents people from voting. The low turnout does not just consist of people who choose not to vote, but also, in ever-larger numbers, of people who can't vote, although they very much want to. That is why we need to examine "voter obstruction" and not just "voter apathy."
In the late 90's, the parliament introduced two changes which contributed heftily to the dramatic fall in the voter turnout.
1) Door to door enumeration was eliminated in favour of a "permanent voter's list." Canadians of voting age recall enumerators heralding the coming election, and functioning not just as registrars of eligible voters, but as a sort of warm-up act for the election. The accuracy of their lists was high, making it easy for people to turn up at the polls. The state assumed full responsibility for enabling citizens to participate in this all important national political event.
Contrast this to the "permanent" voter's list which was used for the first time in 2000. Compiled from the 1997 voter's list, provincial lists, and from voluntary registration from tax returns and vehicle registrations applications, it turned out to be a complete dud, full of wrong information, dead people, people who had moved several times since '97, and more significantly, great numbers of people missing altogether, including ones who had not moved, and of course all who had just come of age or become citizens.
In the Prince Albert riding in 2000 our campaign spent more time than we cared to just helping people get on the list ? not an easy task as the system was not set up then (nor is it now) to cope with the errors and omissions that are inherent in the so-called "permanent" voter's list. Getting on the list was a major obstacle course. Election Canada's phone would ring busy and a personal visit to the local Chief Returning Officer was often the only recourse. For many their efforts to vote stopped there and then, because they simply couldn't make the trip.
On voting day, our office was flooded with urgent calls from people denied the right to vote, despite having been instructed by Elections Canada to appear at the poll with their ID
Many discovered they were in a wrong poll, and were unable to go to a different location, far from their residence.
This regressive "reform" had full support from both the Liberals and the Reform/Alliance, and was done to suit the "less government" ideology of these two parties, and their obsession with spending cuts. In one fell swoop the change in voter registration puts the onus on the individual to get him or herself registered -- while placing numerous obstacles in her way. The ones most affected are the poor and young -- among whom in Prince Albert were a very high percentage of Aboriginals -- and these are the very people whose voices must be heard for democracy to function . Thus the change has contributed in spades to voter inequality, too.
2) A second regressive and little understood feature of the "reform," is the shortened campaign period, from a minimum of 47 days to 36, another cost-cutting measure. But more was cut than costs, as a shorter period significantly lessens participation in the electoral process. (It also heavily favours the incumbents who get out of the starting blocks faster, while the challengers scramble to get their offices functioning -- and to get access to the ever-so-flawed preliminary voters lists.) One visible result of this short period is the lack of all candidates meetings where voters can come to listen and to question -- and to heckle, if need be, in the grand old electoral tradition.
The "reform" is a train wreck that has devastated citizens' chances of meaningful participation in the election. The campaign has left them and has become lodged in the media's "virtual reality" where personalities, commentators and programme hosts with their never-ending spin have replaced the voters. The TV debates are structured to allow for none of the give-and take of a proper public meeting, and both the candidates and the voters watching them are cheated. The voters, who should be lining up at the mike to pummel the candidates with well prepared questions, only appear in media clips -- the more negative about "politics" in general, the more likely to be heard and seen. The informed and thoughtful voter no longer "fits" in the show formats scripted and directed by media "opinion makers," who have become vote-makers.
Elections Canada is now hell-bent to introduce internet voting. That will, in my opinion, be a final blow, with reliability and accountability out the window, as voting security - or any security -- cannot be guaranteed on the net. Electoral fraud would be practically invited. More significantly, in a country full of techno-peasants, many of them without even the most elementary computer equipment (just think of our aboriginal and rural populations, and the working and unemployed poor in our cities), voter participation would further terminally diminish, institutionalizing voter inequality for good.
No, if we are to have a functioning democracy, we must go back to the future: we need to restore the voter-friendly enumeration, and return to a longer campaign so candidates and voters will have an opportunity to meet each other face to face, and not through the limited and controlling media filters. And we must do our utmost to prevent the death of democracy by electronic voting.
Marjaleena Repo is a political strategist and organizer. She ran David Orchard's 2000 federal campaign in the Prince Albert, SK, his PC party's leadership campaigns in 1998 and 2003, and was Saskatchewan representative on the party's management committee. She can be reached at Tel:(306)244-9724 Fax: (306)244-0606