Alberta Votes (2 of 3): Apathy

This is the second of 3 reflections on the 2008 Alberta election. In the first of them, I railed against the fact that 53% of the votes were translated into 87% of the seats – an overwhelming legislative majority from a bare minimum popular majority.

What I didn’t dwell on is the fact that those 72 seats were actually won with the support of just over 20% of eligible voters. Overall, only 41% of people who could vote did vote. Apathy in this wealthy province is rampant.

Part of me feels the same way about this as I do about people who found last year’s Scottish ballots too confusing – that people who can’t be bothered to put a little time into exercising their democratic rights deserve to be uncounted. Democracy depends on an informed, responsible electorate, which in my mind excludes people too lazy to vote, or too lazy to take the time to understand a ballot a six-year-old could follow.

But there’s more to it than people getting what’s coming to them. If a government can come to overwhelming power with the support of only 20% of the people, is it still a democracy? What if it’s just 10%? 5%?

Those of us who take our democratic responsibilities seriously can’t just sit back and sneer because so many of our neighbours are disenfranchising themselves. We all benefit from a thriving democratic process in which everyone participates and feels involved.

There have already been proposals regarding Albertans’ apathy.

The main contender seems to be suggestions for compulsory voting. Several countries have some form of sanction to encourage voting, from the mild fines in Australia and Belgium to heavy financial consequences in Bolivia and even difficulty getting a driver’s licence or passport in Greece. The evidence suggests that compulsion does, indeed, increase participation. But the question is whether this forced participation is good for democracy. As I said above, democracy is based on informed, responsible participation. As anti-compulsion campaigners in Australia point out, you can force someone to vote but you can’t force them to vote responsibly. At worst, compulsion would mean that the 60% of people who currently don’t vote in Alberta would just vote randomly, obscuring any rational, considered decisions from the 40% of responsible voters. It could make a mockery of the idea of democracy.

What we need is some means of persuading people that their vote counts, that it is worth their while to voluntarily educate themselves on the choices and vote out of a will to participate.

What we need, in fact, is electoral reforms. See my previous post for more details on electoral reform. Check out the table of countries in the Wikipedia article on voter turnout. Notice that Canada is toward the bottom, with 76% turnout in recent elections. Alberta’s 41% would be well off the bottom of this graph. If you go through this list of 36 countries and look up what their electoral system is, you’ll find that the first-past-the-post system we use here in Canada is far more prevalent toward the bottom, among the countries with lower voter turnout. I admit, this is by no means a clear and rigorous statistical observation, but it is suggestive.

Compulsion as exercised in other countries is often not severe – the fines in Australia are under $100, no worse than a speeding ticket – but it attacks the wrong problem. The problem is not simply that not enough people vote; it’s that not enough people feel involved, not enough people are inspired by the idea of participating in a democracy. Part of that is due to an electoral system that doesn’t represent voters’ preferences well. Part of it is because most voters today haven’t been face-to-face with the alternatives to democracy. Part of it is because we often have rather insipid, uninspiring politicians.

I’d rather not have to go to war or beat down an upstart dictator in our own country just to inspire participation in our democracy, so let’s see about changing things on a less revolutionary level, eh? Simple, empowering electoral reforms have a real chance of turning around the rampant apathy we have in Canada, Britain, and other developed countries.

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5 Responses to “Alberta Votes (2 of 3): Apathy”

  1. cath Says:

    I wasn’t convinced that the Scottish voters were just too dumb to know how to use the ballot paper properly. I found it confusing too, altho i think i followed the instructions ok in the end!Anyway just read this vaguely related article which reminded me of this post of yours:More posturing politics

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Cath, thanks for the article. I confess that, even having lived there for 5 years, I still don’t have a clear handle on British politics at either the UK or the Scottish level (and certainly not the council level).Like you, I am sure that the vast majority of Scottish voters aren’t too dumb to know how to use the ballot papers. As I said, I think the main problem was being unprepared. (I think “lazy” is fair, but you may object if you wish.)For my part, I got at least 2 good sources of info beforehand – a leaflet through the letterbox several days before the polls, and a detailed website explaining things very well. Anyone with access to one or both of these had every reasonable opportunity to understand the voting system beforehand and (as I did) to prepare notes for themselves to use on the day.I am willing to concede, though, that some small part may have been played by the glomming of all three ballots into one event. At the least, the council elections might have been held separately as (I think) an electoral commission had recommended beforehand. I also heard some claims (have they been confirmed or substantiated) that the mailed-out leaflets did not make it to everyone. If so, that is a clear failing on the government’s part.I hope my strong language on this issue hasn’t ruined your appreciation of my (usual) friendly demeanor! 🙂

  3. My European representatives « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] – a topic I’ve complained about before – only about a third of the eligible electorate turned out. In a country with almost 50 […]

  4. Alberta Votes (3 of 3): Religious interference « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] Alberta news item. But, at about the time I began this series on the Alberta election (see here and here for previous installments), I heard that a Catholic bishop in Ottawa is refusing communion to […]

  5. Cranky about voting | Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] time I ranted about this (here, here, and here), I was living abroad. Now, I’m right in the thick of it. I’ve been living […]

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