Monday, December 20, 2010

Rediscovering the forgotten

James Bow's post on the "forgotten bloc" of 40% of Canada's voting public is well worth a read. But as nice as it would be if a single policy or idea can bring enough of them back to the polls to make a difference in the next federal election, I'd think that the longer-term need is to be far more ambitious about both the number of voters brought back, and the means to make that happen.

Let's note by way of example that Canada's current governing party - which has enjoyed a massive fund-raising over its competitors for years - has just announced its intention to write off nearly 40% of Canada's electoral map. And based on the game of inches that we've seen in federal politics over the last few elections, we can expect the other parties to focus on even fewer seats in an effort to win just enough to shift a balance of power in their favour - regardless of how much of the country misses out on any effective presence as a result.

So if we're looking to figure out where the voters are going, a useful starting point is probably to ask how many voters are being written off long before election day - and how much extra effort it will take to bring people back into the political sphere after they've been ignored for several election cycles.

Mind you, James is right to note that a system of proportional representation would put a quick end to the current incentive for parties to narrowly target small segments of the vote in swing seats based on the reality that only a tiny proportion of Canadian votes figure to make a difference in the immediate composition of Parliament. But I don't see any particular hope for PR being put in place anytime soon - at least, not unless we first see some significant change in position among the parties in the House (likely meaning a weak Liberal minority that's willing to make major concessions to a strong NDP).

Absent a change in electoral systems, the best hope looks to me to be a sustained effort from outside groups and individuals to engage disaffected citizens and highlight the importance of government in general and their vote in particular. But it's worth noting that our current political parties face significant reasons to be cautious in their efforts - as the Cons are of course best served by suppressing the vote among all but their core groups, while none of the opposition parties can afford to focus solely on bringing in new voters without inoculating against the risk that they'll prefer another alternative to the Cons.

Of course, there's some good work done by Apathy is Boring, Canadians Advocating Political Participation and others to try to get things started. But there's a long way to go even in reducing the flow of voters tuning out the political system or choosing not to vote while remaining otherwise engaged. And for now, it'll take an effort which may not show many immediate results within our obviously-flawed electoral system to create the conditions for longer-term change.

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