Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

At least one good reason to vote

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CHARLOTTETOWN -- Canadians are increasingly becoming political dropouts. There appears to be a declining sense of civic duty, political engagement or democratic responsibility. Growing numbers of Canadians can't even be bothered to make it to the polling station.

Significantly, more people chose not to vote in Ontario's recent election than those who actually voted for premier-elect Kathleen Wynne. In fact, preliminary results show barely 52 per cent of Ontarians took the time to vote for any of the party leaders.

Can this disturbing trend be corrected with voter incentives and other administrative mechanisms? How about Internet voting technology? Lowering the voting age? Greater awareness and mobilizing campaigns by Elections Canada? What about paying citizens a small stipend to march their way to the polling booth?

More controversial is the idea of instituting compulsory voting in Canada at both the federal and provincial levels (even municipally, if we wish). Before you dismiss this proposal, remember mandatory voting already takes place in more than 30 countries. Even liberal democracies such as Australia, Belgium and Switzerland have well-established compulsory voting systems.

Australians routinely garner voter participation rates of 95 per cent, which puts us to shame. Citizens there can be fined (about $20) for not voting without a sufficient reason or justification. And if the nominal fine is not paid after several warning letters, that person could face possible jail time.

In every jurisdiction that has introduced mandatory voting, voter turnout has increased by at least 10 to 15 per cent. This increase has also been most conspicuous among younger voters, who are now compelled to vote.

No one is suggesting, of course, that people have to vote a certain way or can't spoil their ballot by not marking an X anywhere. But they do have to show up at the polls if they want to express their displeasure with politicians or the political system as a whole.

Many critics will be quick to say there is something inherently problematic with a voting system that forces citizens to vote in a "free" and "democratic" society. Add to that the depressing prospect of uninformed voters actually determining electoral outcomes? Others will say it won't fly here, that it is repugnant, and that people are entitled to choices in this country.

In a poll roughly 10 years ago, some 76 per cent of Canadians opposed the idea of compulsory voting. And I doubt much has changed in the interim.

Fine. But then what is the solution to stemming the precipitous drop in voter turnout we are staring at in the coming years? Do we really want to see only 40 or 50 per cent of Canadians voting on election day?

How legitimate and representative would any government "elected" under this scenario be? Do we want a pattern to emerge where abstaining from voting is as legitimate as voting itself?

Yes, the thought of being compelled to do anything in a liberal society does seem offensive. But forcing people to vote would seem a minor infringement on our basic freedoms. Indeed, we already make allowances or forfeit certain freedoms with respect to wearing seatbelts, reporting for jury duty, and not driving our vehicles under the influence of alcohol.

It is possible, moreover, that compelling first-time electors to vote will enable them to become more politically engaged and aware over time. Instead of them currently turning off politics and tuning out of elections altogether, we could see young Canadians learn to value and appreciate the right to vote and having their say in forming the government of the day.

Furthermore, if voting is not an integral component of our democratic polity, as would seem to be the case as more and more Canadians choose to forfeit that right, then Canadians will most assuredly get the government they don't deserve. And, as a result, only certain small, elite segments of society will be reflected in the orientation and policy prescriptions of such a government.

One does not, of course, want to sound too alarmist or argue the political sky is falling here. But there may come a time -- particularly if these low voter-turnout rates continue into the future -- where someone is going to wonder why it is that we have elections in the first place if no one is bothering to show up. Mandatory voting, then, is at least worth having a conversation about.


Peter McKenna is professor and chairman of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2014 A9

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