There is nothing less intimidating to a politician than a room full of angry non-voters. They have no leverage.
By Sean Hurley
Published February 21, 2014
I was canvassing for a candidate in London, Ontario when the resident of one rental household told me he had never voted in his whole life. He said it with an unmistakable pride.
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. I went on to the next house, and the next, and the next. I only return back there in my mind, wondering what I could have said.
As another municipal election approaches, and possibly a provincial election, and certainly a federal election next year, the same old saws will be brushed off and carted out to encourage us to embrace our inner cynic and stay home on election day. And I'm sympathetic. Oh, I'm so sympathetic.
But it is important for me to keep in mind that voting does matter. Voting may not always deliver the results that one expects or hopes for - even when a favoured candidate or party wins, and, in some ways, all politicians are alike even if all politicians are not the same.
So let's agree voting is an act of faith in the system and let's agree the system seldom delivers what we want. Why vote?
The reason Hamiltonians ought to spend the few minutes it takes to cast a ballot in a municipal, provincial, or federal election is because by not engaging in the process, we remove ourselves, our communities, and our interests from meaningful engagement in our own governance.
Think of an individual vote as a buck. Think of politicians as salesmen who are attempting to sell an interest in an idea or service or product for exactly one buck. It costs a politician a certain amount to win every sale.
The campaign dollar has a utility and the politician wants to maximize it. He or she wants to spend the campaign dollars where they will get the greatest return. They want to spend their campaign dollars in vote-rich neighbourhoods. It just isn't worth it to them to spend campaign dollars in neighbourhoods where there just aren't any, or too few, buyers.
The implications that flow from this are enormous. Politicians receive electoral packages that contain a wealth of information from the previous election including poll-by-poll results.
A politician, a good politician, will review that information, possibly plot it on a map, and recognize very apparent patterns: some neighbourhoods have high voter turnout, some have moderate voter turnout, and others have low voter turnout.
A politician with limited funds to spend will focus most of his/her attention on the voter rich neighbourhoods, with a moderate effort in the moderate neighbourhoods and they will limit their time, if they invest any at all, in the voter poor neighbourhoods.
The result is threefold:
1) Neighbourhoods that vote matter.
It isn't because of socio-economic status that some neighbourhoods see greater public investment than others. It is because politicians listen to people who vote. Their opinions matter and what they want matters. If they demand traffic calming, chances are better they will see it.
2) Neighbourhoods that don't vote matter less.
There is nothing less intimidating to a politician than a room full of angry non-voters. They have no leverage. Their threats "to throw the bums out" are hollow. Their backyards are the safest backyards to locate all those services and programs that the neighbourhoods that do vote don't want.
3) By not participating in an election, our voices become silent in the public debate over issues.
It has been argued, even championed by some, that our politics have been moving to the right. Even the Ontario NDP has jettisoned long-held policies while embracing lower personal taxes and the "middle-class".
But what if Canadians haven't been moving to the right so much as the public debate mirrors the interests of those who vote? Statistics Canada and various election agencies all tell the same story: Voters tend to be older, employed or retired, homeowners, wealthier, and Canadian born.
Isn't it possible that the debate has only shifted to exclude the interests of the younger, poorer, immigrant, renters who don't vote?
When in Hamilton we bemoan the lack of action on two-way conversions, bike lanes, LRT, and other issues that always seem to take second place to the beloved automobile, is it not possible politicians are only representing the demographic that both drives and votes in greatest numbers?
A presentation prepared in 2011 by Sara Mayo for The Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, titled Hamilton's Social Landscape [PDF], includes the following map that paints a very telling picture:
City of Hamilton Voter Turnout by Polling Station, 2007 Provincial Election (Image Credit: SPRC)
Lower voter participation among residents who are struggling on low incomes creates a negative feedback loop: our city's most vulnerable aren't represented at the tables where policies that affect them are discussed and civic and political leaders don't hear their voices when making decisions, then those on the margins feel that the political system does not reflect their priorities and they become more disenchanted.
That same statement could apply equally to the young, students, cyclists, transit users, renters, immigrants, and just about anyone who lives in those vote-poor neighbourhoods or who has a group don't vote in significant numbers.
Like any social issue, there are numerous complexities, all of which may contribute to lower voter participation. Certainly politicians will argue they don't ignore anyone and they give equal care and consideration to all neighbourhoods. And there will always be the exceptions and the obligatory anecdotal evidence of the neighbourhood where nary a soul casts a ballot but is nevertheless showered with political gifts.
Still, if could go back and replay that moment with that young man who was proud at having never voted, in hindsight, I would reply to him, "Then you've never counted. I would really like you to be counted. Please consider voting. It is the last best chance you have of changing anything."
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