Alberta’s dismal voter turnout
I wanted to reproduce this editorial from today’s Edmonton Journal:
In the next three-plus years, each time you hear an Albertan complain about the provincial government, remember this
Chances will be almost three out of five that the grumbler cared so little about the future direction and management of public affairs he now bewails that he or she couldn’t be bothered to vote on March 3, 2008.
And with Monday’s shameful 41-per-cent turnout preceded by 2004’s dismal 44.7, and by the only slightly better 53.8 per cent and 52.8 per cent in 1997 and 2001 respectively, chances are equally good that the whinger’s objections can safely be ignored — because he or she won’t stand up and be counted next time either.
It’s strange, isn’t it? If a citizen applied this bystander behaviour to an individual fellow citizen needing aid across the street, we’d be appalled. But when an unhealthy majority of us take the walk-on-by approach to accepting some political responsibility for the good of the community, we seem to react with a shrug of ennui or an unfair finger of blame at politicians for failing to adequately inspire us.
To be blunt, Monday night’s participation rate by Albertans in the democratic process was a disgrace. The right millions around the world would give anything to exercise, many of us find too burdensome to spend 15 minutes on once every four years.
No doubt, a few voters are deluding themselves today that the low turnout is the reason Stelmach won so handily: That’s one of the many problems with not voting — it gives wishful thinkers room to spin the result as distorted or somehow illegitimate. In 2004, for example, a few observers disparaged the Liberals’ gains that year in this way, describing them as an artificial consequence of Conservatives staying home.
But that’s not the argument here. On the contrary, the reality is Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives are overwhelmingly the people’s choice. Indeed, for all we know, if voting were compulsory, the opposition Liberals and NDP might have won no seats at all.
But the fact is, to stay relevant and popular, the best and most effective government in the world needs to know the electorate is keeping an eye on it — and is willing to hold it accountable. When a majority refuses to vote, the question “What would Albertans think?” is hardly likely to be a top-of-mind consideration for Stelmach’s advisers.
The reasons people don’t vote are probably as many and varied as people themselves.
Presumably, at least some can’t be bothered because their constituency is routinely held by a mammoth majority. At least some of these folks — especially those who might choose one of the small opposition parties such as the New Democrats, Greens or Wildrose Alliance, might be more likely to lever themselves off the family-room recliner if proportional representation of some sort gave them confidence the effort would have some impact on legislature and government.
Another, rather perverse, possibility is that some nonvoters realize the political class is a lot more likely to worry about them if they don’t vote — by writing earnest opinion articles about the dangers of a disengaged electorate, for example — than if they validate the process by marking ballots.
But one can’t help but wonder if the best explanation is that many of us have come to view voting as an act of self-interest rather than one that seeks the best for fellow Albertans. It might make sense not to vote when times are good, if the only person affected was oneself, rather than the fellow who needs a divided highway to Fort McMurray, or a hip replacement for his mother.
Let’s conclude — and underline the truly dreadful nature of Monday’s turnout — by stating party results in terms of all potential voters.
Doing that, we see that of 2,252,104 folks on the voters list, about 22.2 per cent voted Tory, 11.1 per cent voted Liberal, 3.6 per cent voted NDP, 2.6 per cent voted Wildrose Alliance, and two per cent voted Green.
And we see that if “Can’t be Bothered” had been on the ballot, you’d be able to open the legislature on the moon and not have to worry about a single live MLA having to gasp for air.