Sunday, April 10, 2011

Voter engagement. (or Week 2 wrap-up)

Last week, just before the beginning of my second- and third-year Canadian history courses, I played the following Rick Mercer clip:

Youth voting has plummetted over the past couple of decades, and falls well below the national average. Indeed, Canadian voting rates on the whole have been declining in recent elections, leading many to ponder the causes of the decline and to propose solutions. Some of those proposed solutions relate to making voters feel more informed about the issues (perhaps via leaders' debates), and others about re-working the entire process so that individuals feel their votes matter more (such as electoral reform in the direction of a form of proportional representation). I was therefore pleased to see that a group of students from my own university attracted extensive media attention for their "Vote Mob" rally when Stephen Harper swung through Guelph.

However, the past week has not been encouraging in terms of the signals that some of our politicians and media outlet owners have sent about voter engagement - or at least about engaging certain types of voters. The Vote Mob rally got so much media attention at least in part because of last week's string of incidents involving students being ejected or barred from Conservative rallies. Although Harper's team has since backed down, the early signals from his team was that non-Conservatives were not welcome to hear the Prime Minister speak. The use of Facebook as a method of screening out voters, rather than engaging them, was not quite how most people probably envisioned the potential of social media to draw in voters during an election.

Indeed, I'm still rather disappointed in the failure of some parties to make full use of a now relatively-old medium for engaging voters - particularly the iPhone and Blackberry-toting youth demographic. In my own riding, Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote is on Twitter (and responded promptly to a question I had about a lawn sign - I'll admit my own leanings in this election), while the local NDP candidate (whose party I voted for in the last federal election) Bobbi Stewart still doesn't even have a candidate bio on the Guelph NDP's website! It hardly draws people in to vote for a candidate when a basic internet search doesn't turn up information about you!

And then today, we learned an important lesson about voter engagement. Because the first game of the first round of hockey playoffs, involving the Montreal Canadiens, has been scheduled for this coming Wednesday, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe asked to have the date of the French-language debate changed, a request now granted by the broadcast consortium. I can understand the logic of both the request and the decision. Lots of Canadians (not including me) are Habs fans, and will want to watch the game. Rescheduling the game opens the possibility that they might tune in to both the French-language debate and the hockey game. I might not like the fact that hockey will trump politics for many potential voters, but I recognize the realpolitik underlying the decision.

But if you're one of the over 937,000 voters who supported the Green party in the last election - the only party, incidentally, to increase its total number of votes from 2006 to 2008 - or one of the many young voters who might want to hear what this party's leader has to say in an exchange with the other party leaders, you're still out of luck.

The lesson from these decision-makers for Canadians: It's more important to engage hockey fans in the electoral process than environmentalists, youth or Green supporters.

Tune in next week for commentary on polling trends, debates and the fate of the nation (after I get a big stack of exams graded).

P.S. - Although my blogging has been irregular and will likely continue to be so, you can follow my efforts at pithy commentary on Twitter. Follow me at @mhayday.

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At 11:35 pm, Anonymous Nicholas Miniaci said...

While there is a significant contingent of youth excited about politics, many of my fellow students are disengaged in politics for a variety of reasons. I'm feeling that the main two are a sense of entitlement (and a taking for granted of the rights and freedoms we have), and there is a sentiment that one's vote may not "matter".

The topic of Canadian politics may not be a priority to many of us because we feel that its effects are absent from our lives. This belief is could not be more wrong, but it's something that I have observed as a student. I laugh at many how uninformed discussions of the party platforms in the library or on Facebook have the ultimate question, "...but what is their position on legalizing marijuana?"

Luckily many of us at the UofG are connected to friends who are engaged, and social networking has become a tremendously helpful tool to get us know what are friends are getting up to and what they think, fostering at least some discourse among us- regardless of how uninformed. Many groups and event pages are bounced around on Facebook throughout the student body, bringing about much needed exposure.

By the way, I really enjoyed your Post-Confederation class this semester; upon reviewing for tomorrow's exam, I've been struck by just how much I have learnt! I'm going to miss it!

At 5:59 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Hayday,

I am curious about your thoughts on fining citizens who do not show up to vote? Australia enforces this and I have mix feelings about the policy. On one hand, it would definately encourage voter turn out. On the other hand, it does remove a certain democratic aspect from the whole voting process: that of the 'right to choose' to vote.

At 9:33 pm, Blogger Matt said...

I'm not a fan of enforced voting, because that doesn't necessarily lead to informed, intelligent vote choices. As it is, too many people already vote the way their families have always voted, or based on vague impressions of politicians' personalities. In my ideal fantasy world, voting might be limited to those who actually could demonstrate some knowledge about the issues and the parties they were thinking of supporting.

But more realistically, I'd like to see more effort at voter education. It's not enough to simply have more people turn up to cast a ballot. You need them to actually be thinking about why they are making the decision they have made (and hopefully have that decision be based on more than media or scare-campaign caricatures of the leaders).

At 3:33 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...

I once wrote a paper about voter turnout that argued that our terrible turnout numbers are a direct result of "war room" style political campaigns in Canada. Since 1993, when Warren Kinsella ripped off James Carville to bring the war room to Canada, we have seen consistent decreases in turnout. This style of campaigning puts a premium on constant attack on your opposition which, when all parties use those tactics, makes everyone look really bad/corrupt/incompetent. As a result, you have young voters who just aren't interested in voting because they have been told - by politicians - that every option is a bad one. Until people begin taking some responsibility for their place in this democracy by going out and finding information for themselves, and making critical decisions in terms of their options, we will continue to have these problems. I think voter education is a major piece of the puzzle, but I think changing the opinion on voting is also a must. We can inform people all we want, but as long as people view voting as a right rather than a responsibility - and I would say that it is the responsibility of any good citizen in a democracy to be informed and to vote - we will continue to have this issue.

Also, as an add on, as long as parties use voter suppression techniques we will continue to have turnout issues.


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