Monday, October 27, 2008

Duty calling

Andrew Potter has put up a few posts dealing with voter turnout over the past week. But one of the columns mentioned by Potter looks like one worth considering in greater detail both as a matter of general interest, and an area which political parties may want to focus in on.

Here's Don Butler on why citizens generally do vote even where it might not be an obviously rational choice:
A survey done for Elections Canada after the 2006 election found 94 per cent of Canadians agree it's a civic duty to vote. Mind you, nearly nine in 10 also said they voted in the election, so perhaps we should take the findings with a shaker or two of salt.

"Once somebody gets this sense of duty to vote," says the University of British Columbia's Fred Cutler, a voting expert, "it's hard to move. They tend to feel badly, and think others will think badly of them, if they don't vote."
I'll leave aside for now the later discussion of a study as to how social influences may promote voting, though that may certainly be worth some future commentary. Instead, I'm curious as to whether or not the current trend toward retail politics may both depress turnout and serve as a suboptimal means of motivating voter choices.

After all, if the main reason why people vote is because of a perceived public duty, then it would seem at least possible that the question of how people vote could be strongly influenced by an appeal to much the same principle - or at least that parties might see the most benefit by making their messages appeal to the desired answer for both questions.

And likewise, it might make sense that to the extent politics are seen as more a matter of choosing from cynically-targeted policies based on one's personal advantage, citizens can be expected a more skeptical look at whether or not to vote in the first place.

So what does that mean for Canada's political parties? At the moment, the Cons are likely the only party which can be said to have a policy message that's largely tied in with its desired level of voter motivation: it seems generally well-accepted that low turnout plays to their strengths in having a motivated base accompanied by a fairly strict ceiling of support, and the Cons' retail politics surely help on both counts.

In contrast, it seems to me to be worth asking whether the opposition parties would be best served tying their messages to the idea of a duty to be a part of something greater. If successful, that could counteract not only the Cons' ideology, but also their efforts to soften public interest in voting. And that can only help to ensure that some Canadians who have been turned off by the current level of cynicism see themselves as having reason to cast a vote which can help end the Cons' me-first model of government.

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