Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fixed election dates compound voter fatigue

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BRANDON -- It is a problem democracies throughout the world are struggling with, and it will soon be Manitoba's problem.

A number of studies have concluded "voter fatigue" exists and is a threat to the proper functioning of democratic systems of government. It can cause high voter disengagement and lower turnout, magnifying the electoral power of votes cast by supporters of extreme ideologies and issues.

The result would see governments that reflect the opinions of a minority -- those motivated to vote by a particular cause that may only be important to a small group of citizens -- as opposed to the more moderate views of a larger segment of the population.

Voter fatigue can be caused by a number of factors: pushing voters to the polls too often, a lack of trust in the "system" or the candidates, an inconvenient voting process and the belief there is no point to voting because it won't make a difference.

Research has also found acrimony between parties and candidates also lowers voter participation -- extreme negativity turns off moderate voters, causing them to disengage.

Many of those factors are already present in Manitoba politics to some extent, but there is a strong possibility the situation will dramatically worsen here in the next year and a half.

Over the past 11 years, Manitobans have voted in four federal elections, three provincial elections, three municipal elections and three school board elections. That's 10 elections, not including byelections or First Nations band council elections.

Starting this fall, Manitobans will vote in municipal elections, school board elections, a provincial election and a federal election over approximately 18 months. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper decides to call the federal election next spring, as many pundits predict, it would result in four bitterly contested elections in just one year.

In parts of southeastern and southwestern Manitoba, both having seen federal and provincial byelections, it would mean six elections in less than two years, 17 since 2004.

At a theoretical level, the coming election cycle is an opportunity for citizens to dictate the course and composition of every level of government within a short period of time. At a practical level, however, there is cause for concern about the outcome of such a saturated electoral process.

There is a limited number of quality candidates willing to run for office. With four different elections to choose from, there may not be enough viable candidates to challenge for all of the spots available. That could lead to more acclamations at the local level and a higher percentage of "fringe" candidates.

The lifeblood of all campaigns is money and volunteers, but most Manitobans are only willing to donate so much cash and time to campaigns. Four campaigns in a year (or six in 18 months) are too much of a burden for even the most loyal campaign workers and donors.

An even greater problem is the potential for issue confusion -- where municipal, provincial and federal issues become muddled in the minds of voters, to the point where many will make choices based on issues that have nothing to do with the particular election they are voting on.

Finally, there is the exhaustion that results from continually receiving phone calls and knocks on the door from campaign teams and pollsters for months on end, along with all the negative advertising we are bombarded with in our mailboxes, the print media and over the airwaves. For many moderate voters it becomes intolerable.

The province's fixed election date law was supposed to help address this problem. Instead, it has worsened the situation by scheduling school board, municipal and provincial elections within a year of each other.

Voter fatigue is real and it is coming to Manitoba. It will likely drive down voter turnout and could yield unanticipated results. Given the amount of research on the subject, our leaders should have seen this problem coming and taken steps to avoid it.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon. Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2014 0

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About Deveryn Ross

Deveryn Ross joined the Free Press as a political columnist in 2011. His columns also appear in the Westman Journal and other community newspapers throughout Western Canada. He has also served as a columnist for the Brandon Sun, Brandon Today and several rural Manitoba newspapers.

Born and raised in Brandon, where he still resides, Deveryn has been active in politics at all levels for more than four decades. He has worked in various roles on dozens of election campaigns in several provinces and has provided strategic advice to elected officials and candidates from all major parties.

Deveryn holds a Juris Doctor degree from Dalhousie University and Bachelor of Arts from Brandon University, where he was awarded the medal in political science.


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