“The fundamental political idea of modern times is the presumed moral superiority of centralized control.” – Paul Lutus
I start this brief essay on voting with this quote to underscore the basic idea – that even unto your most private choices on a quiet afternoon at Cape Spear or Rennell Sound you are at least nominally beholden to laws crafted in Ottawa with the imprimatur of (the representative of) a monarch in a London not in Ontario, and everyone just kind of goes along with this. The voting is taking place in a context not of our own making, and people also forget that Canada proper once meant what is now Quebec and Ontario – indeed, the initial constituent bodies of Confederation in Queen Victoria’s decree were Canada, Nova Scotia (which Cape Breton had been subsumed back into), and New Brunswick (once part of Nova Scotia but granted independence from Halifax by the aforementioned London).
Voting offers at least some limited latitude within this context. In the provincial legislatures and the federal House of Commons, the citizens elect a single member for each riding under plurality voting – that is, earning a majority of votes within a riding is not necessary; it suffices to have more than any other candidate. The candidates available to vote for, that got their party’s nomination, required the signature of the party leader, giving that person an effective veto, to say nothing of the coercion that occurs once actually in caucus, especially when in government. We seldom have popular referenda or even non-binding plebiscites on many important issues. One might argue that the whole idea of governance is to abstract this power away to a central authority. We can’t control the decisions but we can participate in choosing the deciders, or so it is supposed to be.
To fully express the problems with our systems would require a lengthy treatment indeed, so here I simply refer to them as a reason why people are often not motivated to participate in elections. (Some anarchists might say that doing so is lending undue credibility to the authorities so elected, and the same sometimes goes for separatists, or parties at odds with the government within “emerging democracies” – abstentionism and outright boycotts are commonplace in the wider world.)
To be an informed voter, to my mind, ought to include knowing something of the candidates available to be voted for, but in practice many people are merely voting for a nationally-televised party leader by proxy. Unless you live in Saint-Maurice, LaSalle—Émard, Calgary Southwest, or Papineau, you have not directly voted for a federal first minister in this century. A few representatives become institutions unto themselves and have at least local name recognition, yet also sometimes “paper candidates” get elected when their party becomes popular. (The major parties, excepting regional ones such as the Bloc Québécois, pride themselves in running candidates across the country, but realistically in most elections many of them will be uncompetitive.)
So then, if voting with party affiliations in mind, this would include knowing something of the party’s platform. Canada has more than two national parties, although only two have ever formed the federal government. Plurality voting systems trend towards two major parties because of the spoiler effect from third parties, which can be undesirable in cases of direct axiological conflict between the major parties. You might prefer an alternative party or candidate, but not so much that you’ll risk abetting the victory of the perceived enemy. Therefore, you vote strategically, not for your preferred party or candidate, but the one who is most likely to ward off the other side.
Another consideration is the record of the governing party going into an election, although you’d almost need to be sequestered in a trial of the century or take religious orders to avoid exposure to the governing party’s favourable airing of their self-proclaimed greatest hits, so it’s important to diversify your information sources.
Speaking of sides, that brings us to another problem: The parties offer ideological package deals based on what people allow each other to talk about (in mass media specifically, one speaks of what’s in the “Overton window”) and if you’ve allowed yourself independent thought on a number of issues you may find that no particular political party fits you well. To my mind, it is a trilemma of aligning strategically, participating naïvely, or avoiding the electoral process altogether.
So why, then, is it important to vote? The best argument that can be made for it is that it’s the best thing we have. I suppose “good government” is a bit like good coaching in sports – when things are going well, you hardly notice it. Games are not necessarily won by good coaching, but they can definitely be lost through decisions that turn out to be poor ones. Another argument is that it’s sometimes an opportunity to win a significant legal change on a popular issue or even attempt to address the systemic issues caused by our electoral system (I think it’s fair to say the 2015 election delivered somewhat of the former but nothing of the latter).
And that is also linked to what would motivate people to participate – that something meaningful to their own lives is at stake. Technocrats will debate various economic and budgetary concerns, and lowering taxes is a crowd-pleaser, but these don’t reach the heart the same way as widening our fundamental freedoms can, for example with the legalisation of cannabis (although that is undoing something that government once enacted – the making it illegal in the first place). To this point, the 2015 election had a 68.3% turnout, the highest since 1993, and the highest this century.
Of course, if a higher turnout metric is desirable in and of itself, a country can simply mandate voting, as for example Australia does. But the turnout isn’t everything, for if that were the case North Korea would be a shining beacon of participatory democracy. There needs to be more to the motions than the motions, including such things as a free press and other media and an independent judiciary. Initiatives concerning freeing things up on the Parliament side, such as the Reform Act as envisioned by Michael Chong, may also be helpful, freeing our MPs to be more than $185,800 (plus expenses) voting machines, which in turn would make our local representative elections more meaningful.
In the meantime, indirect “political” discourse continues to be important – the political parties are not philosopher kings but rather after crafting themselves to be appealing to enough of the electorate to bring them into power. In this sense, provided they are not permitted to simply rig the system so they always win, they can ultimately reflect something of our own values, albeit in an inefficient and iterative way, but it’s the best we have. Voting: It is not completely hopeless!
 – Commentator Andrew Coyne gave a lecture entitled ‘The Alarming State of Canada’s Democracy’ at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law in November 2013: https://youtu.be/HIGO6QYL-ng