It's unlikely voter turnout can be improved by marketing or usability improvements
Harry Lali and I agree. Sort of. I know, I know, you're probably thinking, Mike, are you going all wimpy on us? Please let me explain why I concur with the NDP MLA, and where we differ.
Once again the intrepid Sean Holman gets a good quote (that's two in one day, Sean – I definitely owe you a beer), in this case from MLA Lali who describes his views as to why his party lost Tuesday's vote:
And what was the reason for that low voter turnout? "I don't know. I think what it is is the onslaught on our political system and the onslaught on our politicians by the major media outlets is creating this negativity towards politicians and politics in general. So people have this impression we're all the same. And I think it's a total injustice. Because, in my opinion, politics is a noble profession."
"People are not corrupt or crooked. People are actually very honest. And you have to be even more honest because of the conflict of interest and transparency laws. A person not only has to be honest they have to appear to be honest," he continued.
I agree with everything Lali says here. He's absolutely correct to state that far too many pundits and sundry bullies have for a generation run down people who enter public life. It has without question led to a palpable cynicism about the role of elected representatives, and it has turned young people off politics.
The continuous trashing of good people who choose to enter public life, usually by people with neither the courage nor the vision many of these leaders have, has tainted our political system. Whether it's ambushing TV reporters in search of a scoop, or vitriolic columnists who take more time drinking a shooter than they do to understand a political decision, we've degraded political dialogue for this generation.
Just read half the thoughtless comments left on a CanWest or Globe news story. For every insightful remark there seem to be dozens of cheap, personal attacks.
Where Lali and I don't agree is his assertion that Big Media is to blame for not only for low voter turnout, but that it conspired to influence the outcome of BC's election in favour of the governing party. Quoting Public Eye again, Lali continues:
"But big corporations own the big media. And it is in their best interests to get government - all government, all politicians - out of the way so they can have unfettered access to resources. That's what they want. And the only thing standing in their way is government. And government on behalf of the people. That's basically what's protecting your environment and your resources and your human resources. Government is there to regulate so there are no excesses."
"You ask me why there's a low turnout? You see the power of the big media. It creates the apathy," stated Mr. Lali, who recently won re-election in Fraser-Nicola. "It's like the Americanization of Canadian politics, where now people are looking into people's person lives - which has absolutely nothing to do with politics or how well they can do the job unless you're a thief or an axe murderer or something like that. That would be different. But this stuff on Facebook and stuff like that - which individual when they were young hasn't done anything stupid? If people were without sins, they'd be all religious leaders like Rama and Krishna and Muhammad and Jesus."
There is a grain of truth in what Lali says. Big Media do have a lot of power, and internet indiscretions shouldn't be the measure of the individual. But to suggest that the backroom levers at GlobalTV are being pulled so that big corporations reign over our resources, or that the Sun's election coverage fosters apathy, I think this is grasping at straws.
The Tyee is another group who blame Big Media for the NDP's disappointing outcome, but then again that's their bread and butter, isn't it? They are not big media and therefore free of corporate influence.
Low voter turnout is not only a regional problem, it's happening around the globe. Take the recent national election in India, and this analysis of the poor voter turnout.
The first-time voters found the voter registration process quite cumbersome... A few youths said they had lost faith in the political parties and so, decided against voting.
Another "cumbersome" system, STV, proposed by BC's Citizens Assembly was intended to be a partial remedy for voter apathy, but it went down in flames even harder than the NDP last Tuesday. It's hard to imagine how STV would get more voters jazzed about casting ballots, if that was the intent.
The Wikipedia on voter turnout offers this formula for why people will - or will not - vote:
The basic formula for determining whether someone will vote is
PB + D > C
Here, P is the probability that an individual's vote will affect the outcome of an election, and B is the perceived benefit of that person's favored political party or candidate being elected. D originally stood for democracy or civic duty, but today represents any social or personal gratification an individual gets from voting. C is the time, effort, and financial cost involved in voting. Since P is virtually zero in most elections, PB is also near zero, and D is thus the most important element in motivating people to vote. For a person to vote, these factors must outweigh C.
It kills me that "D," or the sense of duty to one's community, has become such a low consideration for people, but I'm not surprised this is so. This lack of commitment is especially a problem with young people whose retort when asked why they don't vote is "why bother?" or "I'm too busy" or "none of the parties represents my viewpoint."
The truth is Elections BC and agencies like them could have voting open 300 days a year, and put it online and people still won't vote. The problem is not lack of convenience. It's that people don't care.
NO STV representative Bill Tieleman thinks we need mandatory voting as a remedy for low turnout. Broadcaster and former MLA Christy Clark thinks we need to lower the voting age to sixteen to engage voters earlier. There are a lot of suggested solutions for how to get people interested again in the democratic process, but I think all of them will have an uphill battle as long as people continue to feel politics is a corrupt business.
There is even a constituency who are satisfied to let voter turnout decline even further. Many times I've heard "why do we want uninformed people to vote anyway?" I have a response to this question.
I've voted in every election since I was eighteen, and I'll always make time to cast a ballot. I've made up my mind on a few occasions right in the voting booth, but I always drag myself there. When I was eighteen I knew nothing of the world let alone political parties or the issues of the day, yet I still had my say because it was important to me to have the privilege to vote.
So it should be with today's young voter, and anyone that takes the time to enter the voting booth. They have a choice, based upon their needs, point of view and the information they absorbed to form a decision. I may not like how someone votes, but I'll be damn sure they have the opportunity to do it.
The only remedy for low voter turnout, short of laws that make it mandatory, or a big jackboot coming down on government critics, is to teach young people to understand the system better. Lessons in civics, and sewing the seeds of citizenship can and should occur at a very early age.
We're forfeiting the opportunity to get kids to understand their role in this world is not as consumers, but as contributing members of their community. The India example proves that with growing affluence comes a creeping selfishness. Couple this with continuous attacks on our political system, and it's no wonder people no longer want to vote.
At the rate of decline we see with voter turnout, I don't expect that democracy as we know it today will exist by the time my child can vote.
Finally, on the subject of why the NDP lost, here's my 2 cents in no particular order:
- Unity of the centre-right under Premier Campbell
- Carbon Tax condemnation alienated Green supporters, and "endorsement" by Vancouver's Mayor, David Suzuki, Tzeporah Berman and others on the pollution tax policy
- General feeling among the public that the government have been making progress key social issues like homelessness, as evidenced by Jim Green's "endorsement" of current government's housing policy
- Negative ads that played only to their base voters, and seemingly angry message from NDP
- Clumsy attack on MLS soccer expansion plans & BC Place politics that alienated middle class, soccer moms, etc.
- Public perception that Gordon Campbell was a better Premier than Carole James
- NDP's dull, uninspired campaign
It's easy to attack Big Media for your problems, but when it comes to the outcome of the Provincial election, the NDP only have themselves to blame.
UPDATE: The Vancouver Sun's Stephen Hume seems to agree with CityCaucus.com on this subject.