25 February 2014

Non-voters and Influence #nlpoli

There is a new scourge among us.

An evil that causes “problems”.

Russell Wangersky found them and wrote about them this past weekend.

They are the people who do not vote.

Now Russell isn’t exactly clear about who these people are. 

Nor is he clear, why non-voters are a problem in February 2014:  after all, there isn’t anyone doing any voting anywhere in Canada at the moment.

None of that has stopped Russell, though, from fingering the last group of sinners who are responsible for letting bad things happen through their indolence.  Their sloth.  Their laziness.

“Most Canadians sit at neither edge of the [political] spectrum,” wrote Wangersky. “The sad thing is, most Canadians are more likely to sit on their hands” when it comes time to vote.

Fanatics do many things — one of them, consistently, is to vote.

And that’s why I say I don’t care if your views on government are diametrically opposed to mine. Just take the small amount of time it takes to familiarize yourself with the issues and then vote.

If you don’t vote, then the phantom people who Russell calls “special interests” are the ones who win. Government will pay attention to them and not you, when people don’t vote, because people don’t vote. 

Doesn’t matter which side it is; as the popular vote sinks, we sink ever-closer to special interests that otherwise couldn’t come up with enough votes to buy lunch.

And when those special interests get special deals on taxes and investments and everything else, don’t shake your head and say the government failed.

If you didn’t vote, you failed.

Wow.

Failure.

Apparently.

Take a look and see if there is some new menace lurking, hon.  Pause “House of Cards” for a minute, if you must.

Nothing new?

Yeah.  That’s not surprising.  There’s nothing on the go these days that makes non-voting a huge topic, let alone one to hold responsible for letting “special interests” gain unnatural influence.

Still, let’s take a closer look at what Wangersky wrote apart and see what it’s really all about.

A majority of Canadians vote

Let’s start by figuring out who these non-voters are.  Russell doesn’t say, so we will have to guess at what he means by looking at the phrase “most Canadians are more likely to sit on their hands” instead of showing up at a polling place.

Most Canadians don’t vote.

This would certainly be a great point to start any column on politics.

One small problem:  it’s not true.

In every federal election and referendum since 1867,  a majority of Canadians have shown up at the polls and cast a vote in their riding.  The highest turnout was 79.4% of eligible voters in 1958.  The lowest was 58.8% in 2008.  But in between, the number has never, ever been lower than the 2008 figure and never less than half the total number of eligible voters.

In fact, when it comes to elections,  what Russell Wangersky said is not only completely false, it’s easily proven false.  When it comes to elections, Canadians do not sit on their hands. 

Period.

Participation Rates

That doesn’t mean everything is just fine among voters.  Elections Canada commissioned a study in 2003 because of the consistent downward trend in voter turnout after 1988.  That downward trend matched the trend in the United States presidential elections, and in United Kingdom and French general elections to the national parliament. 

Yet, while voter turn-out seemed to be dropping everywhere,  Elections Canada was concerned enough to try and figure out why so they could make sure people didn’t face any unnecessary obstacles.

Elections Canada found that the likelihood someone will vote is closely tied to how old the person is. Voting among young people is significantly lower than it is among seniors. They also found that people don’t tend to vote vote when an election isn’t competitive. In other words, if there isn’t a hot issue or if the voters don’t think  that their vote will affect the outcome of the election, they don’t turn up at the polls.

Do some further research and you will find all sorts of reports and studies on voting behaviour.  There are people who always vote. They are more likely to come from families where the mom and dad always voted. There are people who never vote. In fact, some of these people are the children of people who never voted.  And in between there are people who vote sometimes. 

If you look at voting rates in Canada,  you will find that there’s a percentage of eligible voters who never vote.  They are the pure essence of what Wangersky is talking about:  they do not vote.  At all. Period.  End of story.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, that number could be as high as 25%,  a figure very close to what some American researchers have turned up in their elections.  We don’t have an accurate figure because – frankly – no one has looked at the issue, as far as your humble e-scribbler knows.

Those same people have not voted in times when people would generally think things were good and they voted at times when things were bad.  Plus they are only about 25% of the population, or less.  Way more people vote pretty much all the time,  if you go by the voting turn-out numbers going as far back as 1867.

So while voter turn-out has been dropping off lately, we are still a long way from the time when a majority of Canadians don’t show up at the polls.

Influence

Political parties want to win elections. They pay attention to public opinion, especially party choice questions, because it gives them an idea of whether or not they will win an election.  In that very broad sense, voters can influence how a politician behaves. They can influence public policy – what a government does.

That sort of influence  - diffuse and intermittent at best - pales in comparison to the sort of influence that comes with giving money to political parties, though. In most North American jurisdictions, legislators have put in place some controls over the amount of money going to politicians and the people who can donate. Some political parties, such as the federal Reform Party, imposed their own restrictions on donations.  In other parties, donations have been known to serve as an entree to meetings with senior politicians and cabinet ministers.

For some reason, Wangersky never noticed that sort of influence in his article.  Nor did he mention another powerful means of influence:  lobbying.  Indeed, the Conservatives used to think that lobbying was such a naughty thing  - like political donations - that they promised to control it once they got into office.  After the 2003 general election, the Conservatives did put some lobbying rules into place but they had plenty of legal loopholes in them such that we’ve seen all sorts of lobbying go on without any proper disclosure. 

The Conservatives completely failed after 2003 to deliver their promise to limit campaign donations in any way.  If you look at the trends in donations over time, you’d understand why. The provincial Conservatives have been able to raise huge amounts of money from all sorts of companies doing business with government since 2003. 

And if you want to talk about a corrosive influence on politics influence, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about patronage.  It’s flourished since 2003 in all sorts of forms including the old House of Assembly scheme that the Conservatives not only continued but actually expanded until the Auditor General blew the whistle on the whole sordid business.

None of that has gotten very much media coverage in the past decade.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any critical mention of patronage,  political donations, and lobbying either in news stories or columns since 2003.

But the comparatively small number of people who never vote, ever?  Apparently, they are the root of all political evil, bending the world out of all shape.

And it’s important in February, when no one is voting.

You’ve got to wonder why.

-srbp-