|Montreal, June 15, 2004 / No 143|
by Ralph Maddocks
As this is being written, Canada is again in the throes of a federal election, an activity which seems to find less favour among the citizens each time one is held. According to Elections Canada, voter turnout has dropped from 77% in 1972 to 61% in 2000. In the last UK general election, less than 60% of the electorate turned out and a Mori poll published recently by its Electoral Commission showed only 51% of those questioned saying that they were certain to vote at the next election.
In elections held for the European Union, voter apathy is even worse. In 1999 only 24% voted in the UK and only 32% are expected to vote this month. In the Czech Republic that figure is estimated to be 20% as opposed to 31 per cent of Swedes, 27 per cent of Slovakians, 26 per cent of Estonians and 76 per cent of Belgians. Optimists say that, if those who say they are "virtually certain" to vote are counted, overall participation could exceed the 50 per cent mark. However, overall voter turnout has slumped from 63 per cent in 1979, when elections to the European Parliament were introduced, to 49 per cent in 1999.
In the USA, voter turnout is also around 50%. Indeed, voting seems to be
on the decline in most of the more prosperous countries, even Israel saw
only a 62% turnout in its election. In the European Union's Irish referendum
on ratification of the Treaty of Nice, only 35% showed up to vote. While
many reasons for the decline in the numbers have been advanced few have
proposed viable solutions.
In 1994, the US Congress saw fit to pass an act known as the National Voter Registration Act (more popularly known as the "Motor Voter Act"). Simply stated, the aims of the law were: to establish procedures to increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federal, State or local government office and to ensure that registration rolls are both accurate and current. While registration of voters did increase, growing by 20 percent from 1994 to 1998, the number of those who actually voted still continued to decline. So the objectives of this particular piece of legislation were not achieved. Yet looking among those who do attempt to vote there is evidence of a great deal of fraud. In Georgia, to take just one example from many, a study found more than 15,000 dead people on the voting rolls.
These errors are of little comfort to those who believe that participation in a democracy is a virtue in itself, notwithstanding the outcome. Those to the left of the political spectrum most likely want more equality but they are unlikely to get it if the people who suffer most from the sort of fraudulent acts mentioned above don't vote anyway. One reason advanced for the decline in voter turnout in Canada is the change from the old system of voter enumeration to the maintenance of an electronic list. What might have happened is that the loss of personal contact with the enumerators may well have induced some kind of subconscious apathy as people may feel that since nobody seems to care enough to visit them they don't need to care about visiting the polling booth. An electronic list of voters held in some far away government computer and the receipt of an official card is hardly conducive to making an elector feel a vital part of the democratic process. The maintenance of that list depends upon the voter making certain that it is up to date, but if you aren't interested in the first place this is no answer.
Other reasons for the phenomenon of the declining vote have been cited, most of which have to do with changes in society, the modern perception of politicians, the nature of political participation, and the changing political agenda. There is a clear sense of alienation among some voters, with people feeling they cannot make a difference even if they do vote. It could be argued also that the public have become disenchanted with politics in part because of the lack of real substance to political debate, the perceived strength of party machines and the nauseating mendacity of many politicians. Rarely does one see real change proposed, if for no other reason than that the governing party will not propose it for fear of being ridiculed by other parties, and the propensity of governing parties to ridicule proposals made by their opponents. Parties rarely offer the electors any real choice, truly important but divisive issues are never discussed thoroughly and the general tendency is to stay as close to the politically correct centre as possible. So perhaps voters feel that it really doesn't matter who they vote for because politicians are all alike, being more interested in personal aggrandizement than in serving the needs of the public. When did a candidate last knock on your door to seek your views?
Perhaps that oft quoted modern influence, television, has played a role in creating voter apathy. There are fewer and fewer good public affairs programmes on television today as people's interest has declined. Let's face it, shows like American Idol or Canadian Idol being watched by idle Americans or Canadians are more beneficial to the commercial interests of network owners. Again, watching and listening to some of the people who present themselves as our potential representatives is hardly an intellectually rivetting exercise. Watching paint dry can seem more alluring. Additionally, a party's whole attraction can be destroyed by the failure of one of its candidates to appear charismatic and knowledgeable on television. John F. Kennedy's defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960, followed by the defeat of Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the 1964 UK elections, were both attributed to the poor performance of the defeated candidates on the small screen. One may even wonder how many TV sets are damaged by having objects thrown at them during an election period. Yet the failure to appeal to the voting public on TV may have little or nothing to do with a candidate's ability, intellect or sincerity.
Most politicians are actors at heart, how else could they get away with some of the outrageous and patently mendacious statements many of them make? Some of them being infinitely more skilled at it than others. We all have our own examples to offer, ranging from politicians in the recent Ontario election promising not to increase taxes, before doing exactly that, through Liberal promises to scrap the GST to Pierre Trudeau's trashing Robert Stanfield's proposal for Wage and Price controls and then introducing them immediately after being elected.
The man in the street is quick to point out that most people have enough problems of their own – crime, unemployment, poor public services, excessive taxation, etc. – without having to worry about who's running the country at the same time. The young are not consumed with anxiety about the health system either, because they rarely use it. This same group doesn't worry too much about taxes either, because in general they are not major contributors. So lowering the voting age, as has been suggested in some places, would not seem to be very beneficial. It has been done in Germany with 56.5% of the 16-17 age group voting and only 49.1% of the 18-21 age group, perhaps simply an indication of the novelty effect of being given a role in society for the first time.
A government's problem is that it needs to increase the vote. It knows that there is little prospect of revitalising people's interest in politics until some significant difference between the parties materializes, but so far no Canadian party has presented us with clear, distinctive policies. To do so might upset some powerful agency – such as a union, an individual such as the president of the USA or a pressure group – which the party seeks or needs to appease. Governments know that they are elected by a small proportion of their people and they know too that their claim to legitimacy is increasingly dubious. So, rather than expanding our choice, they seek to boost voter participation by tampering with the mechanics of voting. In doing so, they are also enhancing the opportunities for interfering in or manipulating the way we vote.
What may happen in our democracies as voter turnout continues to decline could be an increase in violence as more extremist groups arise claiming to speak for the people. If the major parties gain mandates based upon perhaps 30% or less of the barely 50% of electors who actually vote, then one might wonder if those who are elected in this fashion can truly represent the wishes of the country. Of course there will be those who say that if you didn't vote then you shouldn't complain, but this is perhaps too facile an explanation, we need to know why people do not vote. Other solutions proposed are some form of electronic voting and postal voting.
Electronic voting poll booths aren't a real answer because they still involve going from home to some other place to touch a name on a screen instead of checking off a name. So if people do not vote because they are essentially too somnolent or disinterested to make the trip to the polling booth, and it can be a frustrating experience, it matters little whether you do the former or the latter. Electronic voting presents other problems. How can we be certain that the computer has not been programmed by some malevolent person to produce some desired result? Similar reservations apply to Internet voting. Who can be certain that the count is true and accurate? Of course, even the conventional voting process can be subverted, as many will recall from the last Quebec referendum where the turnout was exceptionally high compared to federal and provincial elections. Not that anyone was ever punished for tampering with the ballots, indicating perhaps that both sides may have had something to hide.
Postal voting was introduced some time ago in local elections in the United Kingdom. Of course, postal votes have been used traditionally to enable people out of the country to vote; soldiers, diplomats, people on vacation, etc., but they always represented a small proportion of the total. There are several objections to generalised postal voting: the ballot cannot be indisputably secret, there can be no meaningful validation of the identity of the voter (an interesting deviation for a country about to introduce mandatory ID cards), the number of people involved in handling the voting process is small – unlike the normal voting process – thus increasing the potential for corrupt practices and finally, when the postal ballots are returned, there is no open and public counting of votes immediately after polling has closed as would occur in a normal election.
The UK proposal was much more ambitious in scope than traditional postal voting. Initially, the idea seemed to be working well with about three times as many people voting by post in local elections compared to previous elections. This so encouraged the UK government that they discarded polling stations in 33 of the elections held in 2003, which meant that some 3.6 million people were no longer able to vote in person even if they so wished. The measure again increased the turnout and politicians began to discover how convenient it was for them. Candidates for election quickly discovered that they could pick up a stack of postal vote forms and deliver them to each house, and either leave the forms with the voter or ask them to complete them on the spot. By doing the latter, the candidate was able to deliver them to the registry personally and at the same time build a list of people who have applied to vote by mail in their constituency. Postal voting forms are sent out on the same day so all that a candidate or his representative has to do is to arrive shortly afterwards and offer to assist the voter in completing the form. The more confused and vulnerable among the electorate, such as residents of long-term care facilities, can be influenced easily in their voting choice by any unscrupulous candidate or party worker.
Similarly, those whose command of the language is limited can be influenced very easily by a "helpful" candidate. Indeed, a Lib-Dem candidate has been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud, and theft of ballot papers. The arrest came after two men allegedly called at a house in Glodwick (Oldham, Lancashire) and offered to look after ballot papers for residents – leaving with five papers.
The danger is particularly apparent in local elections where someone seeking reelection is in a position to influence the decisions of people who either don't understand what is happening, or who wish to oblige their apparently learned and official visitor. Each postal ballot form has to be witnessed and signed to attest that you are indeed who you say you are. This means that one person other than you may know for whom you voted, and whoever counts the ballots knows for who you voted also. It was behaviour such as this which brought the secret ballot into being in the first place. As the more ruthless political parties discover the potential for influencing voters, elections may well come to be decided by unscrupulous canvassers showing up on the voter's doorstep soon after the postman delivers the postal ballot and assisting them in filling up their forms. Even if the presently legal act of picking up postal votes were to be abolished, there is nothing to prevent such abuse. Yet again, initial indications in this week's EU elections were that the use of the postal vote had increased turnout in those areas where it was instituted.
If postal voting ever came to our shores one would want to be one hundred per cent certain that one had voted. The only way to ensure this, apart from watching the count oneself, is to watch it go into the ballot box. Postal services around the world are quite capable of losing, mislaying or delivering too late the mail entrusted to them and Canada Post is no exception. Indeed, the postal ballots in the abovementioned UK elections for the EU (the government having now extended the scheme to cover 14 million voters) went out one day late and at least one 11-month-old baby has received one! Further, should a threatened rail strike take place then the delivery of the completed ballots could also be affected. So there is no real way for a voter to make certain that their vote was even delivered, let alone counted. The more suspicious among us might think that the real reason for postal voting is not to increase the turnout but to influence the results.
More disturbing still is that postal workers in the UK are being told by their union leaders and the management of the Royal Mail that, if they disapprove of "extreme" political parties they can refuse to deliver election leaflets! By law, the Royal Mail is required to deliver election material and any which remain un-posted will have to be delivered by managers and non-union staff. The political parties involved described the move by the Communication Workers' Union as "appalling" and warned the Royal Mail that it would face legal action if homes did not receive their leaflets. As this is being written evidence is accumulating of large numbers of electors being effectively disenfranchised because postal ballots were not delivered to them.
Perhaps none of this really matters in the growing totalitarian state known as the European Union, because, following what I wrote previously in le QL (see UK ID CARD: THEY'RE AT IT AGAIN!, no 142), the Belgian democracy which outlawed the Vlaams Blok party now has company. The new Spanish government has banned a Basque separatist coalition from running candidates in the European Parliament elections. It has banned Herritarren Zerrenda (HZ), from taking part in the poll, accusing them of being a continuation of the pro- independence Basque group, Batasuna, whose activities have been banned already because of its links to the armed separatist group ETA.
In Australia, citizens have both the right and the responsibility to register and to vote when they reach 18 years of age. Indeed, it is compulsory to do so, and it has been since compulsory voting was introduced in 1924. Those who chose not to exercise their right will be contacted by the Australian Electoral Commission and requested to provide a valid reason for not voting, or to pay a fine of $20 Aus. If, within 21 days, the non-voter fails to reply, cannot provide a valid and sufficient reason or declines to pay the penalty, then prosecution proceedings may be instigated. If the person is found guilty in court then, he or she may be fined up to $50 plus court costs.
Over the last twenty years, the Australian participation rate as a result of the vote being compulsory has varied between 94.34% and 96.20% in the Senate elections and between 94.17% and 95.31% in elections for the House of Representatives. In 2001, the latest figures available show participation rates of 95.19% and 94.85% respectively. It seems people will only be brought to vote in large numbers when under compulsion to do it. As for our own coming election, perhaps the turnout will increase if enough people vote simply because they are angry with the Liberals over the so-called Adscam business.