Over the past 20 years, turnout in federal elections has dropped a massive 16 points, reaching a historic low of 58.8 per cent of registered voters in 2008.
Faced with the fourth federal election in seven years, Canadians can be forgiven for suffering a serious bout of election fatigue. It is too easy to forget that people around the globe have risked their lives to win the right to vote in free and open elections. Elections are at the very core of representative democracy, serving as an essential mechanism for holding governments to account. There is cause for concern, then, when so many Canadians fail to exercise this most basic of democratic rights.
The challenge is to re-engage Canadians in the electoral process. Vote Compass was designed for this very purpose. This online electoral literacy tool was launched on CBC the day the election was called. By the third day of the campaign, over half a million Canadians had already used the tool.
Visitors to the site are asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with a series of 30 statements that cover a broad range of issues. Based on their responses, their average positions are plotted and they are able to see how their positions compare to those of each of the political parties.
This may seem like a gimmick, but injecting some fun into elections is not such a bad thing. In her aptly titled book, Entertaining the Citizen, Dutch scholar Lisa van Zoonen has made a powerful argument for the importance of providing citizens with a pleasurable shortcut to the information they need to make political choices. This is one of the motivations behind the creation of tools such as Vote Compass. First developed by political scientists at the Free University of Amsterdam, they have become hugely popular across Europe.
Tools such as Vote Compass harness the interactive power of the Internet to counter some of the roots of political disengagement. Many people fail to vote because they feel they lack the information to make an informed decision. This may seem perverse given that voters today have unprecedented access to information, but the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming.
Vote Compass is designed to make it easier for voters to sort through all the information and figure out where the parties stand on the issues of the day. Users can click on the name of a party and see where that party stands on each of the issues. The parties have been assigned positions based on an extensive coding of their public pronouncements. These positions are summarized in brief texts, but each text is accompanied by a link to the original source so that users can make their own assessment.
Lack of information is not the only reason for not voting. Many Canadians believe there is not much to choose among the political parties. If the parties are perceived to be more or less indistinguishable, there is little -- beyond a sense of civic duty -- to motivate citizens to show up to vote.
Vote Compass makes it possible to see at a glance just where the parties do -- or, more frequently, do not -- agree. Some users may be surprised to find there are more differences than they had assumed. They may also be surprised to see the range of issues over which the parties disagree.
Partisan spin, horse-race journalism and the pervasive game frame make it all too easy to lose sight of the fact elections deal with issues that are critical to our well-being and the well-being of our communities. Small wonder there may not seem to be much point to voting.
Realistically, a tool such as Vote Compass cannot be expected to do much on its own to counter declining turnout, but if it gets more people talking about the election and taking an interest and if it can help people to make informed choices, it will have succeeded in its purpose.
Elisabeth Gidengil is a member of the Vote Compass Advisory Board. The Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship is a partner on the Vote Compass project.