You can tell it’s election time in Canada : newspapers are debating whether or not Stephen Harper is a rabid Jesus freak, whether Jack Layton is completely loony, whether Paul Martin has a pulse. And of course, there’s that other increasingly recognizable election-time tradition, the hand-wringing over voter apathy, which we’re led to believe is one of the symbols of the democralypse.

Since 1988, Canadians have been turning out to vote in steadily decreasing numbers. The 2000 election saw just 61 per cent of registered voters (and presumably less of those eligible to vote) show up to return Chrétien for a third term in the PMO. That was the lowest turnout in Canadian history, and there’s no real reason to believe things will be any different this time around.

There are many groups that spring up every election year to try to alter this trend, many — such as the Montreal-based Apathy Is Boring — modelled after the MTV’sAmerican Rock the Vote campaign, targeted at young people, of whom a scant 25.4 per cent turned out to vote in Canada in 2000. And it’s a situation shared across the Western world. Countries such as Australia have instituted mandatory voting laws to combat the phenomenon.

These groups take as their operating assumption that low voter turnout is in and of itself bad. It shows that politics and politicians are not “speaking to the youth,” that voters do not believe voting will change anything, that people are disengaged from the system and no longer care. It’s assumed in such rhetoric that engagement is a good thing and disengagement is bad, and that low voter turnout is a symptom of a democracy and a society in peril.

But on closer inspection, it would seem that low voter turnout is just the opposite. There’s every reason to believe that the real reason most people don’t vote is that they live in a healthy, stable, prosperous and peaceful society. While most voters may not be overwhelmed with joy by the options on offer, they do have every reason to be confident that any of the candidates will, if elected, carry on much as before. No one is talking about instituting a mandatory draft, or cancelling public healthcare.

While the major parties in this election differ on many fine points, the fact is that all subscribe to a core program that represents Canadian values. No matter who is elected, the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of Canadians will go on unchanged. For most of us, the difference represented by a tax cut or increase will be a few dollars a week, monetary policy will change next to nothing and social issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights will continue to inch forwards and back, affected more by the courts than by parliament.

Viewed from this angle, low voter turnout may be a sign of a healthy, stable society. You just need to look to the places and times where voters turn out to the polls in droves to see that high voter turnout is not an indication of good things: Spain after Franco’s death, South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, the former Soviet republics after the fall of communism.

The Czech Republic presents an interesting study of how stability affects voting habits. In the 1990 election about six months following independence from the Soviet Union, 95 per cent of Czechs voted. Twelve years later under a stable democratic government, only 58 per cent showed up.

So we should perhaps stop wringing our hands and recognize that fewer voters is one of the rewards of a good society. Voting is and should be a right, but it is not an obligation, and it’s time to recognize that not voting is just another way to exercise the franchise.

But we should also begin a campaign to overhaul our education system. An uneducated voter is worse than a non-voter; meaningless at best, dangerous at worst. If unscientific straw polls are anything to go on, average high school graduates (and a good many university graduates) are not aware of how our political system works, never mind who they should vote for. Ask some people on the street who the leaders of the three major parties are and you’ll be met with a lot of blank stares. The federal Liberals are suffering in polls from one symptom of this educational deficit right now, punished for McGuinty’s recent budget, even though the provincial and federal Liberal parties are separate entities.

Every citizen has the right to be apathetic. But all should know how the system works when an issue arises that they do care about.

And though for most of us life will remain mostly the same no matter who is elected, it will make a difference to some. Most of those most invested in the results of the election are at the extreme ends of our economic spectrum. Ask a person on welfare what the difference between Mike Harris’ Tories and Bob Rae’s NDP was. Ask Galen Weston how Stephen Harper’s tax cuts would affect his bottom line.

Our richest and most impoverished have much to lose or gain in this and every election, and they have every reason to be the most involved. The rich do their part, contributing money as well as voting in relatively high numbers. Anti-poverty organizations would do well to organize their constituencies to vote come June 28th.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on June 10, 2004. 

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