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.

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