Monday, March 21, 2011

On turnout

Susan Delacourt is right to point out that turnout figures to be a major factor in the next federal election, with the Libs seemingly having the most to gain in terms of winning back votes they've held in the immediate past. But it's well worth noting that the Libs themselves have seldom acted as if boosting overall turnout is a goal worth pursuing.

Remember that after taking power, the Cons decided to implement a strict voter ID bill with the obvious effect of making it more difficult for people who want to participate to do so. And the Libs joined the Bloc in passing it, with only the NDP standing up for the principle that we shouldn't be putting needless roadblocks in the way of citizen access to the polls.

And while that might be dismissed as a mistake under Stephane Dion, the Libs' general message is still far from a strong appeal in support of voter participation. In fact, they're spending more time telling 36% of current voters that their effort is wasted than they are making any appeal to citizens turned off by the current political climate. Which means that the occasional message about boosting turnout (usually linked to the message "as long as it goes to us") needs to be taken with a heavy grain of salt.

Now, there's a fairly obvious reason why the Libs have decided to take such a contorted position. An increase in general turnout also creates obvious costs for a party whose main priority is to assemble a majority coalition: after all, the more groups make the effort to participate, the more a party will need to win over in order to take power. So from the standpoint of tracing the shortest path from opposition to a 38% majority, it makes some sense to focus less on bringing out the disaffected and more on convincing current swing voters while keeping disaffected voters on the sidelines.

But if that means the Libs are in the same boat as the Cons in looking to take the largest possible piece of the smallest possible pie, that hardly serves to position Michael Ignatieff and his party as defenders of Canadian democracy. And it may be that the Libs' failure to make any progress stems in large part from voters seeing through the contradiction.

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