The problem with sitting on your ballot

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, October 2015

Low voter turnout in 2011 allowed a small minority of Canadians to elect a majority government.

Did you know that right now you own something so coveted by certain prominent Canadians that they and their varied confreres are spending an arm and a leg to convince you to give it to them? You guessed it; I’m talking about your vote. 

But let’s start over, because that first sentence is not entirely accurate. It’s true that millions of partisan dollars have been bringing election buses and podium rhetoric to almost every whistle-stop in the country—such excitement!—but not everyone necessarily wants you to vote.

That’s ridiculous, you say. But it’s totally true if you happen to be among the 39 percent of eligible Canadian voters who haven’t been to the polls in recent years. Chances are you’re under 40 and don’t really see the point of voting: There’s not much coming out of Ottawa that’s relevant to your life and your concerns—lack of affordable housing, the cost of living, environmental degradation, and so on. And you see no sign that the government “gets” that you and many other young Canadians would prefer sustainable, purposeful work over the touted rough-and-tumble jobs in its heavily favoured oil and gas sector (from whence it still doggedly believes all solutions will come). 

You also know that when it comes to budget and policy, your demographic is almost always overlooked. No wonder you decided not to vote. You saw that it made no difference anyway, your one small vote held back from the big paper mountain of marked ballots. In fact, the act of not voting probably felt more pro-active, more like a tangible snub of the bloated system and boldly partisan establishment. It was your way of saying, “I’m not playing that game. It makes no difference anyway.”

While that’s understandable thinking, consider instead that abstention from voting is not a neutral act, not a public process that you can privately bow out of without creating some repercussion. In truth, your non-vote influenced the outcome of the last election, and here’s a streamlined version of how it happened: 

In 2011 only 61 percent of eligible Canadians took the time to vote. Of these, 40 percent returned Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to Ottawa with a solid majority (166 of 308 seats). Forty percent doesn’t sound like a majority but given our “first-past-the-post system” in each individual riding, indeed it is. 

What’s more notable is that 40 percent of actual voters translates to only 24 percent of all eligible voters, which means that fully three-quarters of Canadians either didn’t vote, or didn’t vote Conservative. That’s how governments get their majority. 

Since non-voting is often due to cynicism and general disenchantment, the reigning government is thrilled when you stay home and nurse your disillusion privately. Now they don’t have to woo your vote and care about your concerns. But that’s not the full extent of what you give away. In choosing to not vote, you actually pass on your “say” to those who do vote. 

You can see the downward spiral here: As more and more people drop out of the system, a dwindling number of voters get to decide who goes to Ottawa. And once elected, whose interests do you think the new government will serve? 

Some politicians might hope that you again decide not to vote this month, but Canada needs you, now more than ever in these uncertain times. As you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, whether it’s traditional or vegan, presented on china or paper, and served at home, in a pub or at a community table, please give a thought to the country’s future and yours in it. What do you need? What do you cherish? What do you want your Canada to be, both at home and abroad? 

Think about whether this might be a good time—a crucial time—to reclaim your own powerful vote and take it to the polling station. Don’t wait until the ballot offers a perfect candidate; you’ll be waiting forever. Do a bit of homework and find your best fit.

You are part of the Canadian conversation. It’s time you claimed your seat at the table. 

Trudy is grateful for our country and its bounty, and wishes everyone a Happy Thanksgiving on October 12 and a proud voting day, October 19, 2015.