Does our Democracy need fixing?

This week, the Globe is running a series this week looking for ‘One Big Idea to fix our democracy.’  Today’s installments are pros and cons of mandatory voting, as well as one suggesting we allow online voting.

The implicit assumption in this series is that our democracy is broken.  But is it really broken?  Sure, it could be improved, but I wouldn’t say that it’s broken.

The most-heard arguments that our political system is broken is that 4 in 10 voters can’t be bothered to vote, that less than 40% of voters cast their ballots for the winning party, and the number of seats won by each party in parliament is not representative of the percentage of people that voted for that party.

Personally, I don’t think that any of these means that our democratic system is broken.  I think they are legitimate areas that need improvement.  That may seem like splitting hairs on semantics, but calling something broken tends to imply that it’s beyond repair; that we should just scrap what we have and start over.  Even with the issues that our electoral system faces in Canada, nobody complains that our elections are not conducted in a fair an impartial manner.  There is no violence or intimidation during the campaign or voting periods.  We don’t have political leaders illegally clinging to power after they lose an election.  And we also have 4 viable choices of political parties (5 in Quebec), as well as the ability to cast out ballots for candidates who belong to no party.  If we don’t like our elected representatives, we can turf them after a maximum of 5 years.  To me, this doesn’t sound like democracy is broken in Canada.

Regardless, the items mentioned above are legitimate criticisms.  All three of the articles in the Globe today deal with the first problem.  The last election we had about 58.8% voter turnout, while most elections before 1990 had voter turnout somewhere between 65% and just under 80%.  But Canada has never had an election with a voter turnout of over 80%.  There has never been a point in Canadian history where everyone in the country has been fully involved in politics.  No matter what idea we may come up with, there will always be a certain portion of the population that just doesn’t care who runs the country.  Neither mandatory voting nor online voting will solve that problem.

Forcing people to go to the polls is not the same as engaging the electorate.  Just because someone is forced to walk to a polling station and check off a box, it doesn’t mean that they care about who they are voting for.  It’s just treating the symptom of the problem instead of the disease.  Showing a number after an election that 93.21% of eligible voters cast a ballot (as in Australia in 2010) only shows that 6.79% of voters don’t care about the threat of a fine.

Online voting has also been touted as a way to increase voter turnout by making it easier to cast a ballot.  But if you don’t care enough to spend 15 minutes out of your day to drop a piece of paper in a box, do you really care about the election?  Showing up to a polling station on election day is not really a high standard.  Plus, there is advanced polls, as well as special ballots, which mean you can vote pretty much whenever you like just by showing up at your local returning office.  Or, if you don’t like leaving your house, you can vote by mail.

Online voting also suffers from two major flaws: there is no way to verify the who the voter is, and there is no paper trail.  Since anyone can vote by mail, I guess we can gloss over the verification problem, but the lack of paper trail is a cause for serious concern.  What if someone asks for a recount?  There is no possible way to verify that all of the votes are legitimate, or that they haven’t been tampered with.  If a system is online, then it is possible to be hacked.  Unscrupulous individuals could use the online system to cause anyone they want to win, without any way to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate ballots.  At least with paper ballots, all votes are counted in front of independent scrutineers, and then the boxes are sealed in case a recount is ordered.  With online voting, there is no scrutineers, no sealing of ballot boxes, and no recounts.  Besides all that, it still doesn’t solve the problem of voters not caring.

It seems that the most common solution to disengaged voters is some form of proportional representation, which theoretically allocates votes more ‘fairly’ between the parties.  While I think we could do with a frank and open discussion of the relative merits of other voting systems, it’s not going to be a panacea for all of our problems.  Besides, in the four referendums that various provinces have held on electoral reforms (two in BC, one in Ontario, one in PEI), none have passed, which indicates that there is not widespread desire for reform, despite what certain parties may say.  But that’s another topic for another day.

Overall, these ideas all seem a little gimmicky and unlikely to solve the problem of 40% of voters not caring at all, and that’s not going to happen until someone inspirational comes along.  The four elections that came closest to an 80% turnout saw the victories of Laurier, Deifenbaker and Pearson.  The elections with the mid-70s turnout saw leaders such as Borden, Mackenzie-King, Trudeau and Mulroney.  Love them or hate them, those leaders know how to rally support.  They had vision.  All of our current leaders can do is tell you why their opponents are bad.  If the goal is voter participation, inspirational leadership is the answer: that’s what has worked in the past, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in the future.


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