A UBC expert comments on NIMBYism, poor voter turnout and more leading up to Vancouver and Toronto elections
As Vancouver and Toronto prepare to visit the polls, Max Cameron – director of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions – discusses voter turnout and dynamics of municipal elections.
Voter turnout in Vancouver’s 2011 municipal elections was 34.57 per cent. In Toronto, the 2010 tally was 50.55 per cent. Why the difference?
We don’t have the kind of circus we see in Toronto municipal politics, or the corruption in Montreal. Vancouver is a city that for the most part is fairly well governed. So there isn’t quite that sense of urgency here.
The issues that municipalities address are the classic issues that generate NIMBYism – a “not in my backyard” mentality. Those issues become flashpoints of interest for people who are directly affected. But they’re not the bigger questions that drive federal and provincial politics.
It’s not surprising that turnout tends to be lower at the municipal level. At all levels, we’re seeing a decline in participation, which says that the generation of Canadians who are now older and consider voting to be a duty is being replaced by voters who seem to be interested in engaging in the political process in new and different ways.
What is the optimum voter turnout?
Certainly, there are good reasons to have full and active participation by as many people as possible.
Citizenship is a practice that requires experience. It’s something that you learn by doing – it’s not something that you can be taught in a civics textbook.
The reality is that voting demands that you acquire a lot of information about the issues and the candidates. If you deny yourself that, then I think you deny yourself the possibility of becoming a better citizen. And if we don’t have good citizens, we’re not going to have good governments. We get the governments we deserve.
Should voting be mandatory?
You could say that everybody should vote, period. And anything less than full turnout is something we should be disappointed with.
Others take the view that people who don’t vote don’t know much, and it’s just as well that they’re not voting. So mandatory voting would be bad, because it would reach down to the very bottom of the electoral barrel and dredge up voters who are completely uninformed and maybe even incompetent.
I don’t like the elitist tone of that argument. I think what we want is something closer to full participation. I do think everyone should vote and people should feel it’s an obligation to vote.
Making it mandatory is one way of simply signalling to the electorate that it is their obligation to vote. The danger is, if you do something because you’re required to do it, it’s a very different kind of act than doing it voluntarily. What we want is for people to feel obligated to vote voluntarily. They should be “forced to be free” by their own sense of civic duty, to use Rousseau’s phrase!
Don’t issues in our own communities affect us more directly? Why doesn’t that mean more, not less, participation?
I think that’s true – except municipal issues are very particular. They affect us and our communities in meaningful and important ways. But they’re the sorts of things that don’t tend to generate broad philosophical differences.
Voter turnout is at its highest when people care about the issues and feel that their vote counts. If you get a tight race, you’re influenced by seeing other people talking and voting – that happens in federal elections, for example. They’re front page news across the country. And people frame the issues in terms of values and interests that pretty much everyone can relate to.
That tends to be less true at the municipal level. How many people do you encounter during the course of your day who ask you anything to do with municipal politics? Very few. So we’re not building the momentum toward a lot of people turning out.
In recent years, political campaigns have increasingly used social media to mobilize voters – particularly younger voters. What will social media’s role be moving forward?
There’s no question that nowadays you can’t afford to neglect social media – all of the candidates are using it.
It’s just a reflection of the fact that our consumption of news is changing. If you’re not visible on social media, you’re going to miss out on a whole segment of the electorate.
But it’s hard for me to say whether this is a fundamental shift that alters the way in which we campaign and govern. We’re in the middle of a technological revolution, comparable to the printing press or the invention of literacy.
As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message” – and I suspect that one of the effects of the revolution in communication technology is to change the way we message in politics, and consequently the substance of what we say. For example, images—the premier wearing a hardhat, the mayor on a bike—are very influential and thus campaigns become carefully stage-managed theatre.