Friday, 30 September 2011

In provincial politics, women matter

by Dr. Joan Grace, University of Winnipeg

For several years, the number of women in the House of Commons stalled at 21% of 308 members - only slightly up to 22% as a result of the May 2011 federal election, even though a record number of women were successfully elected.  In provincial legislatures, women have typically fared better.  According to data from February 2010 published by Equal Voice, Manitoba leads the way at 31.6%, followed by Quebec at 28.8%, Ontario at 27%, British Columbia at 29.4% and PEI at 25.9%.  Three of these provinces are now engaged in an election – here’s hoping the numbers go up, or at least stay the same. 

But wait....something’s happening.  In many of these provinces, women are more visible.  In PEI, 30% of candidates are women, a provincial first.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s quite possible that a woman will be elected both Premier and Official Opposition leader.  And then there’s Manitoba where a record number of women are running to capture a seat at “the Ledge”.  A recent article in the Winnipeg Free Press by Mary Agnes Welch reported that, from the four major political parties, 60 female candidates are running, compared to 58 who contested the election in 2007. 

This is good news for the democratic process.  I agree with my colleague Kelly Saunders who previously contributed to the U2011 Campaign Blog that women can make a difference to electoral and legislative politics. They often do so because they bring a particular perspective on policy issues and public concerns that is often not expressed or advocated by their male counter-parts.   This is based on the argument that women understand and know what it’s like to live as a woman in society – as caregivers or secondary wage earners. 

Even if you don’t agree with this gender argument, I argue that it’s important for women to run for elected office because provincial politics matters.  Provincial governments, after all, who are responsible for programs and policy areas that can mean being economically independent or accessing the labour market because of education, income support, labour and training, health care and child care.  And its cities and localities under the domain of provincial governments who are tasked with services that women depend on each and every day such as playgrounds, safe streets, clean water and public transit to name a few.

And as a perpetual, like it or not, have-not province, it’s up to women to take part in the election and to remind the federal government of their specific needs and demands.  No province functions in isolation.  We are part of a federal system and so we should defend and promote Manitoban interests, especially when they don’t seem to be so women-friendly in Ottawa.  It doesn’t matter which political party is successful in forming the next government on October 4th since the Premier will be part of important first minister talks and meetings which can have a real impact on women and Manitobans.  Health care is often on the agenda at these federal-provincial meetings, and serious socio-economic concerns could be too such as poverty, indigenous rights and affordable housing.

So women matter.   The party leaders know this, because women vote as often as men do, and their votes can sometimes mean the difference between winning or losing.  The NDP, PC and Liberal parties are all appealing to women voters with their focus on families, health care and education.  Even the PC party has just promised to fund Osborne House, a shelter for women in crisis.  The NDP hasn’t made this promise.  Not yet anyway.   But to my mind, this is another reason why women matter in provincial politics.  They vote conservative, they vote liberal and they support the NDP.  While it is the case that women have tended to vote on the left, they are concerned about the issues espoused by the PC party.  They are listening to the Green party too.  The environment and crime are key issues for many women.  All of the parties are paying attention to women voters.  Women in turn must take an active interest in the election, cast their vote and hold the newly elected government to account. 

Joan Grace
University of Winnipeg

Joan Grace appeared at a U2011 Cafe Politique on "Women in Manitoba Politics".  Visit the U2011 YouTube Channel for webcasts of her presentation, and those of Mary Agnes Welch and Louise Carbert.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Want to make a difference? Volunteer in a Local Campaign

Royce Koop, Simon Fraser University

Canadians and Manitobans are seriously cynical about politics. Manitobans tend to believe that, even if they wanted to have an influence, there is not much that they can do as individuals to really have an impact on politics.

But I’m here to tell you that you can have a real influence on politics in Manitoba. And the best part is that you can do so while never leaving your own community.

How, you ask? By getting involved in a provincial campaign in your riding. This can be for any candidate from any party. As it happens, Manitoba has a provincial election coming up and candidates are already in campaign mode. So if you’re thinking about jumping into politics, it’s the perfect time to do so.  

Does getting involved in a local campaign really make a difference? For a long time, political scientists doubted that it did. We thought that elections were all about national campaigns and leaders. If the leader ran a good campaign, then local candidates would be swept up in the tide. But if the leader ran a terrible campaign, then local candidates were doomed.

But we now know that you can make a difference by getting involved in local campaigns. Most importantly, you can help candidates increase their vote shares. Using statistical models, political scientists have demonstrated that increased numbers of campaign volunteers, more campaign donations, and increased contact between campaigns and voters all increase the number of votes that candidates receive. Sometimes, it’s enough to push candidates over the top and get them elected.

So, you’re interested in making a difference through local campaigning. How do you do so? That’s easy. First, if you don’t already support a party, then you have to choose one. Once you make a decision, google the party candidate in your riding. Then give them a call or visit their campaign office.

What can you expect during your first visit to a campaign office?

First, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and perhaps tears of joy. Local campaigns are chronically short of volunteers. So it’s very likely that you’ll be greatly appreciated from the get-go.

Next, you’ll probably have a choice of tasks to tackle. You’ll be able, for example, to deliver lawn signs for the candidate around the riding; phone voters and see if they’ll consider casting their ballots for your candidate; deliver literature to voters; and canvass your neighbourhood with the candidate while knocking on doors and visiting with voters.

But the real drama takes place on election day. You may want to be a scrutineer, monitoring voting stations to keep a sharp eye out for election fraud shenanigans. You may want to call sympathetic voters to ensure that they have cast their ballots. You may want to drive voters to the polls—these “get out the vote” activities are crucial to winning. And you’ll definitely want to go to your candidate’s victory party and cheer alongside your fellow campaigners as the results pour in.

Now, I don’t want to be accused of false advertising. If you get involved in a Tory campaign in the Maples where the NDP is strong, for example, you’ll have a tough row to hoe. And if one of the leaders runs a terrible provincial campaign, then it will be harder still for you to get your local candidate elected.

But even in these cases, there are exceptions. In the last national election, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff ran a poor campaign and local candidates across the country suffered as a result. But in my old riding, Kingston and the Islands, a neophyte Liberal candidate, Ted Hsu, beat the odds and got elected.

This was no small feat, as the Tories poured resources into the riding. But Hsu won anyway. Part of the reason he won was because Hsu’s campaign organization was full of committed, hard working local campaigners.  

So local campaigning is one way for you to exercise a real influence on politics in Manitoba, all while working within the context of your own community. But there’s one final reason why you should think about helping out a local campaign.

It’s fun. In a 2000 survey, members of Canadian parties were asked why they stuck with their parties. Many of those surveyed responded that they stayed for solidary reasons. What this means is that they enjoy the feeling of being a part of a team—kind of like cheering for the Jets with your friends—and value the friendships that were forged while participating. The exhilarating drama of campaigns and election nights forge enduring friendships and strong loyalty.

So if you want to make a difference in Manitoba and have fun, think about giving local campaigning a try.

The U2011 Understanding Manitoba's Election events continue on noon on Thursday, September 8th at the Millennium Library with Dr. Royce Koop of Simon Fraser University, Robert Ermel of the Manitoba Institute for Policy Research, and Dan Lett of the Winnipeg Free Press busting myths about election campaigns.  For more information see

Friday, 6 May 2011

"The Youth Vote" and the 'Mob' Mentality

Several critics are lamenting the failure of vote mobs and other student-based initiatives to increase the rate of voter turnout among Canadian youth in the most recent federal election.  Preliminary analyses suggest young Canadians stayed home every bit as often as in the past, despite the efforts of Rick Mercer and other well-intentioned advocates.

Beyond "slacktivism", of the main reasons why:  With all the talk about “the youth vote”, many of us forget that young Canadians are a very diverse group.  In particular, we have fallen victim to equating “the youth vote” (and interests, issues, etc.) with “the student vote”.  The result has seen a further alienation of those young Canadians who are least likely to engage in the political process: non-students.  

Students are among the most engaged and visible members of their generation.  They congregate (on campus), making them easier to contact, mobilize, and organize to vote (especially during the school year).  They have higher levels of education and income – resources that enable them to engage more effectively in political life.  For these reasons, students receive a relatively high level of attention during election campaigns (at least compared to non-student youth).  Political parties of all stripes place student issues in their platforms, whether focused on student loans, tuition, research and development, RESPs, or other campus-based concerns.  Most MPs are former (or current) students, themselves, and can empathize with campus-goers.  And election authorities have made efforts to add polling stations on campuses in order to make voting easier for students.  All told, the quantity and quality of this attention may not be enough for student advocates, but it is certainly more than non-student youth receive.

Given this, it is not surprising that students (and youth who have completed post-secondary education) are every bit as likely to vote as older Canadians.  This bears repeating:  Despite (or perhaps because of) all of the attention the media, politicians, and election officials pay to boosting “the student vote”, young Canadians in colleges and universities are no more likely to stay home on Election Day than older Canadians.  (Results from Canadian Election Studies dating back to 2000 confirm this little-known fact.)

All of this campus-based attention is not only misplaced, however.  It may actually be detrimental to the cause of boosting overall youth turnout.  By equating the student vote with the youth vote, and focusing solely on student interests, we are further marginalizing those young Canadians who cannot or choose not to attend universities and colleges.   Their issues remain off the political agenda, even largely unknown, as we assume we are addressing them by talking about campus concerns.  Because non-students are disengaged from elections, they will not be engaged by politicians, and the vicious cycle will continue.   

This is not to say students should stay home, nor is it to say politicians and the media should ignore students’ concerns.  Rather, it is to emphasize that, just as there is no single “ethnic vote”, “women’s vote”, “francophone vote”, and so on, Canadians under the age of 30 come from a variety of backgrounds.   As Brenda O’Neill (University of Calgary) reminds us:

It would be a mistake to think of youth in Canada as a homogeneous group; although they share similar challenges, experiences and norms as a result of their age, there are many additional factors that are likely to result in variation in their willingness and capacity to engage in the political and civic worlds. Age is but one element of youth identity; the interplay between the various roles and identities that shape engagement is complex, interesting and worthy of additional research attention. Among these elements are education, income, gender, Aboriginal status, ethnicity and immigrant status, and each has received too little focused attention among researchers who examine engagement.

If vote mob organizers and other youth-vote advocates want to make a larger impact in future elections, here’s a modest proposal:  focus on boosting non-student turnout.  Ask your usual participants to bring non-student friends to these events, and encourage them to participate in the electoral process.  Get to know their concerns, interests, and issues, and join them in voicing these in the next campaign.  Host the events off-campus, and target ridings where turnout is lowest.  The real growth in youth voting will come among non-students.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Election 2011: Who's missing?

Much has been made of the dramatic vote swings witnessed in Monday’s historic federal elections, and party leaders and pundits have spent hours interpreting the results in search of what Canadians “really said” on Election Day.  Unfortunately, we’ve missed the main message by focussing on the wrong sets of numbers.

Let’s start by looking at what we usually do:  seats and votes.  According to these statistics, the “blue wave” brought Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada 24 additional seats and its long-awaited majority, while the “orange crush” saw Jack Layton and the New Democrats vault into second place, earning 65 more seats than they had at dissolution.  These victories came at the expense of the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois (both down 43 seats), and overshadowed the Green Party’s first-ever victory with the election of leader Elizabeth May. 

Beyond the seat totals, most observers point to the popular vote earned by the various parties as an indication of the outcome.  With the support of 39.6 percent of voters, the Conservatives now form one of the most “manufactured” majorities in Canadian history – second only to the Chretien Liberals’ 1997 victory (when they won 155 of 301 seats based on 38.5 percent of the popular vote).  These results have renewed calls for electoral reform, with critics claiming that the opposition parties were punished – and the Conservatives rewarded – by our first-past-the-post electoral system.  (One should note, however, that the New Democrats actually benefitted from the FPTP system, too.  They received 33 percent of the seats on the strength of 30.6 percent of the vote.)

While they await final verification by Elections Canada, these numbers do accurately reflect the mainstream view of the election’s outcome.  One important statistic is missing, however:  voter turnout.

Preliminary figures released by Elections Canada estimate Monday’s turnout at 61.4 percent.  This rate was up slightly from 2008, when participation reached an all-time low of 58.8 percent.  But it was a far cry from the predictions offered by many pundits and politicians, and remains the third-lowest turnout on record.  

This means that 38.6 percent of eligible Canadians chose not to participate in Monday’s election, yet their role in the outcome receives no attention in traditional reports of the results.  This is puzzling considering non-voters make up the largest segment of the Canadian electorate – larger than voters supporting the Conservative government, and larger than all of the opposition parties combined.  This is not the first time, of course.  Non-voters made up the largest segment of the electorate in 2004, as well.  In terms of provincial election results, the same is presently true across most of the country (save for Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and pei).

Some may see little reason for concern in these figures.  After all, recent research indicates that there is very little distinguishing the political views of voters and non-voters.  These studies offer little reason to believe that the outcomes of Canadian elections would have differed drastically, had more citizens turned out to vote.  Moreover, provided non-voting is evenly distributed across the entire population, and provided Canadians appear satisfied with the status quo, long-term decreases may be an indication of the health of Canadian democracy.  Canadians may be content that their vote will not make much of a difference, given that a change in government is unlikely to result in a change to their everyday lives; or they may feel comfortable allowing someone else to make the necessary decision on Election Day.  In this sense, many non-voters may be considered “couch” supporters of the governing party (who see little reason to turnout, given that their party of choice will win the election, regardless of their vote); “closet” supporters of the opposition (who see only futility in casting a ballot for a losing party); or “political drop-outs” (who are so ill-informed that their participation in the election could only serve to distort the outcome).

By contrast, others are likely to be concerned with low voter turnout.   That our first-past-the-post electoral system “manufactures majorities” is worrisome enough, they claim; the fact that legislative majorities and mandates are being based on the expressed support of so few eligible voters is even more disconcerting.  Other critics may point to several surveys at the federal level that challenge the assumption that non-voters are drawn proportionately from all segments of the population.  Studies consistently report an under-representation of youth, Aboriginals, recent immigrants, members of visible minority communities, people with lower levels of education, and lower-income individuals among Canadian voters.  This “participatory distortion” suggests that only certain types of people are involved in the electoral process.   This may establish a situation in which active citizens are over-represented in terms of their influence on public policy, yet unrepresentative of the general population with respect to some politically relevant characteristic(s).  Because they are more likely to vote (or otherwise engage in politics), public officials are more likely to hear, respond to, and behave proactively in the interests of the most active citizens and groups.  By the same token, parties have fewer incentives to engage with those people and communities who are least likely to participate.  These distortions may create a vicious cycle, in that marginalized groups may feel even less inclined to vote, thus further distancing themselves from the electoral process. 

Without further research, it is impossible to decide between these two normative evaluations of the 2011 federal election.  Previous studies appear to support both causes.  Beyond doubt, however, it is time we start reconsidering our use of “popular vote” totals to depict the outcome of Canadian elections.  Non-voters should be counted in our calculations.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Democracy for All?

Of all the issues that have been raised during the federal election campaign – from the economy to the state of Canadian democracy to corporate tax cuts – what has been noticeably absent has been any discussion of Aboriginal issues. This is disturbing, given that, in the words of Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, “First Nations issues matter to all Canadians”. Some progress has been made in certain areas; the federal government’s apology for the residential schools policy and its decision to finally ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are two examples that come to mind. Nonetheless, deep social and economic gaps continue to exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, that in the end weaken us all as a country. Pick any measure – infant mortality rates; incidence of chronic illness; lack of access to affordable housing, clean drinking water and economic development opportunities; high school and post-secondary education dropout rates; unemployment levels; crime rates; poverty – and the figures for Aboriginal peoples far exceed those for the non-Aboriginal population. The “to-do” list confronting Canadians as we work towards undoing two centuries of colonization, assimilation and tragedy not only remains daunting, but serves as a constant reminder of the extent to which our political leaders continue to fail thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across this country.

Unfortunately, the lack of discussion of issues related to outstanding treaty and lands claims, harvesting rights, self-government, education and economic development to name just a few is only one aspect of the problem. The other concerns the ongoing marginalization of Aboriginal people from Canadian political institutions and processes. While it has been over half a century since Inuit and First Nations people gained the right to vote in federal elections, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples remain some of the most disenfranchised citizens in the entire country. While data on Aboriginal voting rates in Canada is quite limited, with wide variations across provinces and communities, from the evidence that is available it is clear that First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations participate in federal elections at a much lower rate than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. In the 2000 election, for example, the national Aboriginal vote stood at 48%, 16% lower than the non-Aboriginal voting rate, while in 2008, barely 10% of all eligible on-reserve voters cast their ballot.

While Aboriginal people are the fastest growing demographic group in Canada, they also constitute a significant percentage of the population in numerous ridings across the country. According to Elections Canada, over 25 ridings in the country have Aboriginal populations of over 10%. Nunavut, of course, is the riding that most comes to mind with an almost 80% Aboriginal population, but ridings such as Kenora-Rainy River (25% Aboriginal); Athabasca (20%) and Winnipeg North Centre and Regina-Qu’Appelle (both 14%) also demonstrate the extent to which Aboriginal votes could increasingly influence election outcomes now and into the future.

While some challenge whether Aboriginal people should even participate in federal and provincial elections to begin with (given that these represent “white man’s” systems, as opposed to First Nations, Métis and Inuit modes of governance), there has also been a concerted effort on the part of the Aboriginal leadership in Canada to encourage their citizens to vote. Websites of the national organizations representing Canada’s Aboriginal population (the Métis National Council, the Assembly of First Nations and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) all contain information on the upcoming election and the Aboriginal platforms of each of the major political parties. Facebook sites have also been created encouraging young Aboriginal voters to get out and cast their ballots; an especially important message given that the fastest growing segment within the Aboriginal population are youth under the age of 25.

Whether Aboriginal Canadians choose to participate in this election or not, one thing is clear. As Joseph Quesnel, a Métis policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy stated to the Aboriginal blog Media Indigena, “just because you don’t take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean politics will take an interest in you. You become part of someone else’s design for political life.” If we are truly going to build a democracy inclusive of all of peoples – most notably our First Peoples – it is critical that these voices be heard. By casting a ballot on Monday, this is one way in which Aboriginal peoples can help ensure that their issues – which are really Canadian issues – finally get heard.

Kelly Saunders, Brandon University

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Cracking the Glass Ceiling

As Canadians we hold the values of equal opportunity, fairness, and democracy extremely close to our hearts. Yet when we look at our elected legislatures, we see that women remain vastly underrepresented all across the country. It might shock some people to know that while women make up a majority of the Canadian population (52%), they comprise only 22% of all elected MPs in the House of Commons. This figure hasn’t budged all that much over the past few decades – in 1993, the percentage of female MPs stood at 18%. What does this mean in the broader picture? Canada ranks 48th in the world in terms of the number of female parliamentarians – below most countries in Europe, but nonetheless still better than the United States (which shares the dubious prize of being tied for 67th place with Turkmenistan).

Aside from basic issues of equity and fairness, does this gender gap matter? The short answer is yes. Women bring different perspectives to the decision-making table, as well as different policy priorities based on their own experiences. Studies also show that women tend to “do politics” differently, in terms of their greater likelihood to seek consensus, work collaboratively with others, and to value negotiation, respect and dialogue in their dealings with opposing members.

A number of proposals aimed at addressing the underrepresentation of women in our political system have been advanced, including legislated quotas, a revamped electoral system (from first-past the post to some form of proportional representation), and targeted subsidies aimed at leveling the financial playing field for female candidates. While these measures may help encourage more women to run for office, on a deeper, more troubling level is what political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin calls the “women plus power equals discomfort” equation – the sense that politics in Canada is still a man’s game. That a double standard exists in terms of how female politicians are treated, especially by the media, has been amply validated by numerous empirical studies and research findings. At the same time, many women are turned off from the idea of running by the crass, attack-style kind of politics which has unfortunately come to dominate the political scene in Canada. We thus find ourselves in a catch-22: if we want to change how we engage in politics, we need a more representative and inclusive political system. But in order to get to that point, we need to change how we do politics in this country.

Equal Voice, a non-partisan national lobby group focused on increasing the number of women elected to political office in Canada, reports that a record number of women (407) are running as candidates in the current federal election. This represents 31% of all candidates; a new Canadian high (in the 2008 election, just under 28% of candidates were women). Maybe, just maybe, on May 2 we can begin to crack through the electoral glass ceiling that still shuts out more than half of the Canadian population. And maybe in the process we can also make public office an honourable calling once again in our country.

Kelly Saunders, Brandon University

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Elections results blackouts in the age of new media

Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal has an interesting column about the ban on the publication of election results before the polls close in British Columbia. Basically, it is illegal for national broadcasters to broadcast results to areas of the country that have not finished voting. In the Internet era, the distinction between broadcasters and average citizens is getting tricky to make and the prohibition on publication of results has been extended to the average citizen. This ban has been getting harder and harder to enforce in the last two decades. In the era of Twitter, Facebook, and smart phones, I'd argue it's now impossible. How are you going to stop people from posting their reaction to the election results on Facebook? Even if they didn't give detailed results, all it would take is a "I'm depressed about the election results" status update from my Liberal cousin in Halifax to know that things weren't going well for her party. Is Elections Canada really going to prosecute everyone who writes something like that?

There is a case for not having people know what the results are when they vote. If we want all Canadians to vote under the same conditions, we presumably don't want to advantage some with information that others don't have. If I am in British Columbia and I know things are close based on results in the rest of Canada, then I might vote differently than if I am sure my local results are likely not to have much of an impact on who will form a government. Furthermore, if voters know that the outcome of the election is already decided before they've voted, it may do even more to discourage voters to turn out.

A solution to this problem is complicated by the fact that Canada is big. Really big. Canada spans five and a half time zones. This makes having everyone stop voting at the same point in time difficult. If we stopped voting at 8PM Eastern time, that would mean the polls would close at 9:30 PM in Newfoundland and 5 PM in British Columbia. There was a move in this direction in the 1990s, when the voting hours were changed so that the polls close at the same point in time from Quebec through Alberta. But that's not enough.

Here's a simple solution if we as Canadians still want to prevent people from being influenced by results in other parts of the country. Keep the voting hours the way they are (or even return to having people vote from 8 AM to 8 PM). However, don't open the ballot boxes and start counting ballots until voters in British Columbia have finished voting. The media and average citizen could then broadcast, tweet, blog, update Facebook profiles to their hearts' content. It would mean a late night for election watchers in the eastern half of the country, but this seems to be a better solution than a law that has been overtaken by a new media environment.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Election Signs in Canada

It’s election season in Canada, and, as usual, we’re seeing partisan lawn signs sprout up like dandelions across the country. As Canadians, it’s easy to forget that lawn signs are not commonly seen in elections across the democratic world. You’re likely to spot lawn signs during U.S. elections, but, in Europe, you’re more likely to see partisan posters and signs in public spaces.

Why do we see so many lawn signs during Canadian election campaign? Mostly because candidates and the people that run local campaigns in Canadian elections think they are important. Local campaigners place great importance on deploying more signs than their opponents, and on deploying them strategically around the ridings.

Once the election writs are dropped, these local campaigners immediately start to hand out signs. They retrieve lists of people that hosted signs in previous elections and have volunteers call them to see if they would like to host one in this campaign. Once they have a list of locations, the campaigners plot how to deploy signs throughout the riding, in order to maximize the likelihood that residents will see them. Volunteers are then given the addresses and the signs are pounded into the ground—usually, willing hosts arrive home from work surprised to discover that a volunteer has arrived and planted a sign in their front lawn. Once these are handed out, local campaigns think about how to fill in the gaps.

There are two primary benefits of lawn signs, from the perspective of these local campaigners. First, it lends candidates an aura of momentum. This is why candidates value lawn signs over highway signs: one volunteer can pound in a hundred highway signs, but lawn signs actually signal solid support. Second, lots of lawn signs deflate opposing campaigns. Volunteers can easily feel swamped and discouraged if they see many opposition signs throughout the riding.

In every campaign, the media seizes on stories of defaced signs. This occurred in Ottawa during this campaign, with someone ominously painting crosshairs on signs. However, it’s very unlikely that volunteers from other campaigns were involved, or that they methodically go about defacing signs from other campaigns. They know what an undertaking it is to put up signs, and they also know that the finger will always be pointed at them if signs are defaced.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Why (do you) vote?

Academics and journalists have spent decades trying to figure out why some citizens choose not to participate in elections.  Their research has uncovered a wealth of information about non-voters.  We know they tend to be less affluent, less educated, and younger than their voting counterparts, for instance. 

By contrast, we have spent far less effort trying to explain why some Canadians actually do show up at the polls – an equally perplexing question, when you think about it.

Considering the overwhelmingly negative tone surrounding elections, and the lack of interest and faith most Canadians place in politics and their politicians, it is actually quite remarkable that more than half of eligible voters cast a ballot on Election Day.

Add to this the fact that, aside from a small number of “close” races, the outcomes of most ridings appear decided before the writ is even dropped – and you have what political scientists refer to as “the paradox of voting”. 

According to the theory – modelled famously by economist Anthony Downs (1957) – voting is, in many ways, an irrational act.  The costs associated with voting far outweigh the benefits.    By “costs”, Downs largely meant the amount of time it takes to participate in the electoral process – from registering to vote, to becoming informed about the issues, candidates, and parties, to actually venturing to the polling station.  These costs are weighed against the chances that a citizen’s single vote will actually “make a difference” in the outcome of the election.  The less competitive the race, or the fewer the differences between the candidates involved, the less impact one’s vote would have.

According this (admittedly narrow) definition of “rational behavior”, it makes little sense to invest the time and energy to vote; non-voters may be acting quite “rationally”.

So what drives Canadians to the polls, despite all of this?

To an overwhelming majority of Canadians, the act of voting is a civic responsibility.  Indeed, that over 90 percent of Canadians view it as “every citizen’s duty to vote in federal elections” suggests that the country retains a strong commitment to the franchise.  (For more on this data, click here.)

Without a sufficient sense of duty or obligation, voters of any age are less likely to engage in the political process.  Whether involvement concerns taking an active interest in political affairs in general, or obtaining information and tuning into media reports about the campaign, those people who feel less compelled by their own value system to participate in politics are less likely to cast a vote in an election.  From the opposite perspective, those Canadians with a deeper belief in voting as a civic duty and a stronger sense of obligation to vote are more likely to derive a solidary benefit from the act of voting, itself.  By avoiding a sense of guilt and fulfilling what they perceive as their democratic responsibility, these citizens are able to overcome the classic “paradox of voting”, and perceive actual benefit from the voting process – regardless of its outcome. 

This civic commitment is not evenly distributed among the electorate, however, as Canada’s youth remain substantially less likely to feel a sense of duty when it comes to voting.  Over one in five youth disagree with the idea that citizens are duty-bound to cast a ballot; this compares with fewer than one in ten people aged 26 to 45, and fewer than one in twenty Canadians over the age of 46.  To be certain, over half of Canada’s youth view voting as a civic duty, with 50.9 percent “strongly agreeing”, and 28.1 percent “agreeing” somewhat.  Still, the strength of this sentiment is considerably lower than that of their elders, suggesting that youth have a unique perspective on the role of citizens in the democratic process.

The challenge, then, is to devise new ways of convincing youth that it is “worth it” to visit the polls.  (Simply saying "it's your duty" doesn't seem to be working.)

Why do you vote?  Share your comments below, or join our Facebook Group as we try to convince Canada’s youth to VoteAnyWay.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

MPs and Constituency Service in Canada

It is well known that we Canadians do not generally think highly of our politicians. And, watching coverage of this election campaign and the shenanigans of Parliament's daily Question Period, it's easy to understand why that's the case.

But the bravado and conflict that make up coverage of election campaigns and the day-to-day workings of Parliament obscure another type of important work that Canadian MPs perform: constituency service. Politicians maintain constituency offices and staff so that they can respond to requests for help on a range of issues. In urban ridings, for example, MPs and their staff respond to many requests for assistance on immigration and citizenship issues; for example, one Toronto MP has a staff member who works full-time on these issues. Other MPs provide assistance navigating government regulations, on taxes, for example. You might have even turned to MPs and their staff for assistance in the past.

MPs put a lot of effort into this "social worker" function of their job because, while they're not sure that doing so helps them get re-elected, they are sure that failing to help out constituents can hurt when they run for office again. But that's not the only reason that MPs put so much effort into helping constituents. In his book Mr. Smith Goes to Ottawa, David Docherty reported from interviews that MPs put effort into service because they think that this is the most rewarding aspect of the job. In other words, MPs like to help people in need (more than they like sitting in the House of Commons yelling at each other), and they put alot of effort into doing so.

When MPs and their staff focus on a particular problem, they can make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Canadians. Anecdotes always help drive these points home. Mitchel Raphael has an exceptionally persuasive account (it's only a paragraph long), starring Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan with Conservative Jason Kenney in a supporting role.

It's tough to dislike all politicians after reading accounts like this. This is especially true when you consider that less dramatic but similar scenarios play out every single day in riding offices across Canada. Maybe in this campaign it's time for us to spend less time paying attention to Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff double-dog-daring one another to debates, and more attention to the candidates in our ridings that are going to be playing important service roles after the election (and the debates) are over.