After six weeks of fractious and dreary campaigning, my greatest hope for an outcome from the 43rd federal election is that Maddison Yetman’s poignant plea means something.
An 18-year-old from Winnipeg, Yetman made headlines around the world last week when she recorded a video message from her hospital deathbed urging Canadians to vote.
"If I can find the time to vote, you can find the time to vote," said Yetman, who was diagnosed this month with a terminal form of cancer that has given her only days to live. During her video, she held up a sign with the hashtag #whatsyourexcuse.
It takes a special kind of teenager to use her final days to make a case for political engagement. Her message should trigger a shudder of guilt from anyone who has put more effort into honing a convenient argument for not voting than they have in casting a ballot.
Will Yetman’s words provoke non-voters to cast a ballot? Hope says yes, but experience suggets a resounding no. I’ve had conversations with literally thousands of committed non-voters, both in person and online, and I can’t see them changing their minds at the bequest of a dying young woman.
I hope I’m wrong. But I’ve learned the hard way that the arguments for not voting are not only varied, they can be remarkably complex.
There are those people who are just completely disengaged from what is going on around them; they don’t read or watch the news, don’t talk about politics or public policy with friends and family, and don’t lose sleep over the ratio of Canada’s foreign aid to GDP.
As a result, these people wouldn’t know who to vote for even if they accidentally wandered into a polling station. Even though the level of disengagement is worrisome, there is something almost honest about the chronically disengaged turning down the opportunity to vote.
But there are also people who do know what’s going on and choose not to vote because they do not find any value in the politicians, parties or issues that drive elections. These are the folks who will tell you that politicians don’t talk about issues that are important to them, or don’t talk to them in a way that resonates.
This election should be an antidote to that argument. Climate change has arguably become the most important issue. Public opinion polls show us a strong majority of Canadians in all demographics think this is the most important issue facing government today. The parties in this election agree.
Hundreds of thousands of young people, many of them not old enough to vote, took to the streets to urge voting-age Canadians to use their votes to get the next federal government to take meaningful steps to address climate change. The issue drove the most poignant and contrasting moments in the leaders debates.
And yet, there is reason to believe that even when politicians focus on the issues most important to a broad swath of Canadians, it’s not enough to get more people out to the polls.
Finally, there are people who claim that voting is, in and of itself, a waste of time because politicians never do the right thing anyway. Many of these people will deny that they are disengaged; instead they will tell you they choose not to vote because it’s a waste of their time, or that they prefer to engage with their community in other ways
You certainly can be engaged in your community without voting. You could volunteer for a service organization, join a single-issue lobby or political action group, take to the streets and protest or hand out leaflets for a worthy cause and legitimately claim you are engaged.
But then again, it’s interesting that when you meet people who do any or all of those things, they are also dedicated voters. And the organizations that recruit people to volunteer, protest or lobby typically also run campaigns to encourage higher voter turnout.
The fact is the more engaged you are in and informed about your community, through whatever means, the more likely you are to vote.
So, if neither shame nor logic is persuasive, then how do you motivate people to get involved in electoral politics? How about the opportunity for pure, unadulterated electoral mischief?
Federal polls show the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat with an average of about 32 per cent support each, with the NDP (about 18 per cent) and Greens (eight per cent) trailing. The Bloc Québécois has surged, now polling even with the Liberals in Quebec.
How unusual is this scenario? In the past 50 years of federal elections, the winning party captured an average of 38 per cent of the popular vote. The lowest result for any winning party was in 2004, when Liberal Leader Paul Martin won a slim minority with only 34 per cent of all votes cast.
If the voting results hold true to these latest polls results — and despite allegations to the contrary, late polls are very close to election day tallies — it opens up a range of possibilities. Pluralities on a riding-by-riding basis will be razor thin. In other words, in the past 50 years, never has a single vote held so much potential to upend the political establishment.
So, vote because for the first time in memory, you have a chance to really influence the outcome. Vote to support something, or protest against something. Vote for change, or to keep the status quo.
Or, vote because Maddison Yetman urged you with her dying words to cast a ballot. It’s as good a reason as any.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.