03 June 2014

John, Danny, and voter apathy #nlpoli

Every now and again,  someone will talk about voter apathy. 

Last week,  Steve Kent was circulating the link to an article that claimed that youth engagement – getting young people more involved in the community and in politics – was a way of getting more people to vote at election time.

That’s what voter apathy is about, by the way:  low voter turn-out at the polls.  It’s a big issue in most of Europe and in North America.  we’ll get back to it in a minute.

Kent was so keen on this article because he is working hard to become the youth engagement guru of Newfoundland and Labrador.  He is especially proud of his first bill in the legislature – Bill 6 – that included a couple of clauses that say a town council can name people under the age of 18 years to positions called “youth representatives.” 

The positions have no power, no authority, and no rights of any kind.  They will be appointed, not elected.  Town councils don’t even have to appoint them at all.  The positions are completely meaningless,  in other words. 

And what’s more, there’s actually nothing in the Municipalities Act before the Bill 6 amendments that prevented town councils from appointing youth representatives,  people with physical or mental disabilities, left-handed people,  or just people otherwise known as crotchety old farts to come down to the town hall every week, sit in the meetings, and watch what is going on.

That’s really all the Bill 6 “youth representatives” will do, really. 

Nothing more. 

Some people got really excited about Bill 6, but if they did, it had nothing to do with finding a cure for voter apathy or even of advancing the cause of “youth engagement,” whatever that hideous buzzword really means.

Voting and not voting

You see, people vote in elections for a whole bunch of reasons.  In fact,  some don’t vote at all.  There are people in Newfoundland and Labrador who have never voted in an election for anyone.  Frank Coleman has never stood for election and apparently has no interest in doing so any time soon:  well, there are citizens who have never voted.  There are people who have voted in every election.  The crowd in between have voted more often than not. 

There’s no evidence that having people at age 15 sit around a council meeting once a week will make them more or less likely to vote when they are 50.  The people who back Bill 6 might think it means something:  reality is that there’s no really reason to think Bill 6 will do anything but give Steve Kent yet another reason to stroke himself in public.

As for the wider issue of voter turn-out, we don’t really have a big problem with it in Canada generally or even in Newfoundland and Labrador in particular.  A majority of the locals have turned out in every provincial election since 1949.  In the past three,  turn-out has gone down but that has more to do with the fact the elections weren’t competitive:  the Conservatives were miles ahead and the other two parties were in various stages of disorganization.  In competitive elections,  that is, where at least two parties are fighting hard  like in 2003,  70-odd percent of eligible voters get to the polls.  That’s pretty good.

Virginia Waters

Voting isn’t the only way people make a choice during elections. Sometimes not voting can be the only way some people can send a powerful message. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that a bunch of Conservative voters chose not to vote in the recent Virginia Waters by-election.  They could have migrated to other parties, as lots have done since 2009. 

These particular voters chose to stay home despite repeated contacts, however.  Now we are not talking thousands or even hundreds of Conservative voters.  We are talking about enough to have switched the result, though. 

Those Conservative non-voters weren’t apathetic.  In fact,  their decision to stay home rather than vote was a way of expressing their displeasure at recent events in the party.  They are very much engaged in politics by the sounds of it.  They were just a tad miffed, it seems,  at the the rigged leadership contest among other things.

John Crosbie’s comments over the weekend and on Monday fit right in to that context.  Here’s part of what Crosbie said to CBC:

"He [Williams] has continued to be very active in the political scene behind the scenes, as everybody who's involved in politics at all knows, and he's had a lot of influence with respect to what happened in the so-called leadership convention."

"It's a so-called leadership convention because it's not a convention. The leader has been selected because nobody else would run, and anybody else who wanted to run, pressure was put on them not to run, told that if they did run they had no chance of being elected, etc. This is not the usual kind of activity one encounters in a democratic activity."

Clearly some Conservatives are ticked off at Danny Williams and his friends.

And, as it appears, they were ticked enough that they chose not to vote even if it meant that the Williams crowd lost.

That’s not voter apathy.

Not by a long shot.

The Conservative Party’s internal problems aren’t over.

Not by another long shot.