On Tuesday night, after a long day at work, I walked two and a half blocks to the polling station nearest my home and participated in one of the fundamental activities of a democratic society. Despite being tired and not really up for it, I voted in the B.C. provincial election.
Now give me a prize, please. I’ll take money or a gift certificate. At the very least, I’d like a tax break. It doesn’t really matter; just give me something so that next time someone asks me why I bother voting — or the next time someone tells me she or he’s too tired to leave the house, or that there’s no point in marking a ballot — I can tell her or him that you get a prize.
When it comes to elections, there’s a sense of self-importance common among Canadians. We like to think of ourselves as a politically engaged populace, far more active than our neighbours to the south. Sadly, we’re not.
In the last American presidential election, voter turnout was only 58%. Pretty low, it’s true, but our numbers are no better. Only 52% of eligible B.C. voters bothered to discharge their democratic responsibility in this week’s election. Out of 3.1 million voters in Canada’s westernmost province, approximately 1.6 million actually showed up at a polling station. Which means approximately 1.5 million, for whatever reason, didn’t.
That represents an abysmally low voter turnout, and it’s not unique in Canada. In the last federal election, voter turnout was approximately 61%. Not terrible, but not great, either. Provincially, we’re much worse: Manitoba’s last election drew 57% of eligible voters, while Ontario got a staggering 49%. Voter turnout at the Vancouver civic election of 2011 was approximately 35%, up from 31% in 2008.
Clearly, not enough Canadians care about voting, and nothing seems to change that. Not appealing to a sense of duty. Not guilt, not shame, not celebrities. Not even clever marketing campaigns, which poke gentle fun at voting malaise (“It’s only the basis of democracy and a free society. But hey, you probably have spin class.”). It seems no get out the vote tactic has proved to be particularly successful in convincing non-voters to vote.
Which is why I think it’s time to resort to prizes. I bet if we took the money spent on hiring marketing agencies to design slick ad campaigns to instead invest in a Kinder Surprise egg for everyone who votes in any given election, we’d get some results. Or if everyone who cast a ballot were entered into a million dollar lottery, maybe more Canadians would get to the polls.
Alternatively, we could punish those who didn’t vote by taking something away from them. Money perhaps, or government services (health care, postal delivery, sewage treatment facilities). This, too, might make democratic participation more palatable to the really tired, really busy, or really not bothered people. Some countries have already adopted this practice, such as Australia, where non-voters who can’t prove they had a good reason for skipping out are subject to a fine. In other nations with compulsory voting, those who can’t explain why they didn’t exercise their democratic right may have difficulty getting a job in the public sector or finding a daycare space for their child.
There are, however, arguments against incentivized voting, and they do hold weight. Do we really want a bunch of people turning up to vote just to get a reward or avoid a penalty? Isn’t it better to have a well-informed voting population of 50% than, say, a higher percentage of voters with watered-down knowledge of the parties and issues?
I see the possible pitfalls of cajoling people into voting, but I also think, in the long run, ingraining an essential aspect of democracy into future generations is worth a few growing pains. For a little while, we may see an increase in ill-informed or donkey votes. But eventually, things will even out. Prizes and penalties, as any parent knows, help instill all kinds of good and appropriate behaviours in people. Throughout time, those behaviours become second nature as the incentives are no longer needed.
Truthfully, like many people who opted not to go to the polls, I didn’t feel like voting on Tuesday night, either. I would have much rather stayed in to watch Murder She Wrote. But the inconvenience was so small and the act of voting so important that I just gritted my teeth and did it. I did it in the space of half an hour.
The walk to the polling station, a local elementary school, was lovely because the sun was out and the birds were singing. The people there were pleasant and helpful, and the process truly painless. When I got home, I enjoyed Angela Lansbury with a heart unburdened by the guilt of throwing away an opportunity to help choose who will govern my province for the next four years. Still, had you asked me any time in the hour before I voted whether I wanted to, I would have said “No.” But I did anyway, choosing democratic participation over immediately responding to my desire for pyjama pants and murder mysteries.
Now give me a damn prize.
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Mikael Bingham is the Deputy Editor of Ballast.