October 17, 2008

The Last Word

Bob Dylan once said, "I don't think about making a million dollars. If I had a lot of money what would I do? I would buy a couple of motorcycles, a few air-conditioners, and four or five couches."

My friend Jon has found a similar level of eloquence and economy in an entry on his blog This Side of Sunday. He's the first person I have encountered who has intelligently and reasonably analyzed the proud Western tradition of not voting. His is political thinking of the highest order. And it's honest. Dead honest.

Here is his brilliant post, in its entirety:

Rock the (non)Vote

So it turns out that only 59% of eligible voters actually bothered to show up at the polls. What gives?

Pundits say people are "tired" of going to the polls. Is that it? Tired? How can we use the word "tired" regarding something we do every two to four years for a couple minutes at a time? That can't be it.

Is it "voter apathy"? No doubt there is a good deal of apathy involved here, but when we say that I think we are also implying that these non-voters actually don't care about the election; that they are an offense to those who have fought for our freedom; that they are a disgrace to democracy.

I don't know about that. What's worse: the person who doesn't follow politics, feels uninformed, and doesn't vote, or the equally-in-the-dark person who does?

I would be in favour of mandatory voting. Charge someone a small fee on their income tax if they don't vote or something. Call it a tax break for those that do vote, I don't care. I think that would be alright. But I also suggest we look for other explanations and reactions to the poor voter turnout.

Sure, voting is our basic right, privilege, and responsibility, but so is the absentee ballot. And doesn't the absentee ballot say something fairly loudly (although not clearly)? I had to chuckle when one news reporter was asking a university student why they didn't vote and they said they didn't feel they had access to the information they needed. The reporter was beside herself with shock. "What? With the internet, radio, newspapers, and television?"

But I think it makes some sense. We have information overload; we don't trust institutions or politicians to inform us accurately; and we aren't even sure there is truth to be had beyond each person's opinion. And sure, the information is all probably out there somewhere, but you have to find it.

Television is built on sound-bytes, caricatures, and repetition. You don't get your information there. Even the debates are centered around offering tidbits for popular consumption. We probably shouldn't fault TV reporters too much for this. That is just the way TV is. Radio is better, and newspapers are better, but they require a fair amount of time and commitment to get our minds around the opposing views. Perhaps we should take the effort, but let's not pretend it is easy. And sure, it is all there on the Internet, but where do you look? Who do you trust for the information? You can't just read one article about the economy, or health care, or whatever---you have to read four or five for each. My (non-voting) friend who I was talking to last night explained that he feels like between him and the politician, it is he who has to do most of the work. That may sound ridiculous to the news pundit or the politician, but I think it is a decent point, actually.

I have a brother in politics, and I learn more from a five minute frank conversation with him than I've learned from hours and hours of listening to the media. He cuts to the chase and tells me what the issue is in plain language and explains why his MP approaches it the way he does. He gives me hard information about how the details shake down. I don't feel like that is easy to get unless you know someone behind the scenes.

I voted. I also ran a polling station and was fairly moved at various points of the day watching my neighborhood all stream through the doors in a low-key but meaningful celebration of their common freedom. But as a voter I must admit that I don't have half a clue what the person I voted for will do for our country. What is she going to do about health care? The economy? War? Taxes? Social services? etc. Part of me can understand leaving it up to the rest of the populace to decide. As long as the polling beforehand is telling me that my riding is a fore-gone conclusion, why bother?

Of course, if the voter turnout gets too low we've got a problem. If too many of us forgo our right we are leaving it up to the "intelligentsia" or the "activists" to do our work for us, and we are one step away from a dictatorship of the elite. But isn't that how it is already? Most of us get our information from the same sound-byte-saturated sources. Ours is a semi-dictatorship of popular media.

And so it seems to me that the 41% who did not vote have said something. Imagine if a political party spent all its effort winning those 41%? What would that party look like? It is conceivable that a brand new party could win a near-majority next time around simply by winning the non-voters!

Or imagine if a news source made a solid effort to really understand the problem here and to reach the populace with accessible and relatively reliable information? We are free to vote, but are we empowered to vote?

Certainly we should take responsibility. Certainly we should vote. But I'm thinking that there are bigger issues that could be addressed here.

I also wonder if the low voter turnout just tells us that people aren't too worried (or if they are, they don't think politics addresses their anxieties either way). They look at the parties in place and the polling data pre-election and it shows them that however it pans out the system will pretty much go as is. Perhaps that is naive and silly and a poor excuse, but I think it explains things pretty well. I mean, I voted, but I am under no illusions that my vote made one iota of a difference and I was never all that worried that our country was going to go off the rails.

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