COLUMN: Non-voters a symptom, not the problem

In the 2015 federal election, nearly one in three eligible voters did not cast ballots

As a federal election approaches, Canadians once again will have the freedom to vote for the candidates and parties of their choice.

The freedom to vote also includes the freedom not to vote, and in the last federal election, nearly one in three eligible voters exercised this freedom.

According to Elections Canada, voter turnout in the 2015 federal election was 68.3 per cent.

The number of non-voters that year was greater than the number of voters who supported any political party in the election.

And that’s not even the lowest turnout on record.

In the 2008 federal election, voter turnout was just 58.8 per cent and in 2011, it was 61.1 per cent.

Some have suggested that the freedom to vote should be a duty to vote.

READ ALSO: Should voting be mandatory in federal elections?

A recent poll suggested the majority of British Columbians support mandatory voting.

Mandatory voting would bring more people out to the polls. This has been the case in Australia, where voter turnout is much higher than in Canada.

But such a measure would address a symptom, not the problem.

The question is not how to get more people to the polls. Instead, it is why nearly one in three eligible voters did not vote.

Why should this matter? Our democracy puts the decision into the hands of those who care enough to cast ballots. By their inaction, those who do not vote are giving up their say in the outcome of this process.

Such reasoning is simplistic. And it ignores the reasons people do not show up to the polls.

After the 2015 federal election, Statistics Canada spoke with eligible Canadians who did not vote.

Some had reasons included illnesses or disabilities, being out of town, problems with the electoral process or objections to voting related to religion or other beliefs, but those reaSons were not the most common.

Of those surveyed, 39 per cent cited political reasons. This included one in three who said they were not interested in politics.

READ ALSO: Candidates showcase character at first federal election forum in Kelowna

READ ALSO: VIDEO: Federal election campaign begins with leaders in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

Others said they did not have enough information about candidates, parties or platforms, did not like any of the choices available to them, did not believe their votes would make a difference or did not know who to vote for.

Another 23 per cent said they were too busy. And some said they had forgotten to vote.

People make time for the things that are important to them. If voting is important, it will be a priority.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, voter turnout was close to 80 per cent. This was the era when the Conservatives were led by John Diefenbaker, the Liberals had Lester B. Pearson and the New Democrats had Tommy Douglas.

In the years following, voter turnout has declined.

The low voter participation today is cause for concern. But it also is an opportunity for change.

If those who did not vote in the last election could be persuaded to vote in October, they would have the power to affect the outcome.

Canada’s three major parties, the Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democrats, each have established bases of voter support.

Two other parties have the potential to make substantial gains if they can attract those who would not otherwise vote.

The Green Party and the People’s Party of Canada — two parties with vastly different platforms and ideologies — are already positioning themselves to appeal to those who want something different from politics as usual.

In the last election, 8,227,759 people who were eligible to vote did not do so. That’s a lot of potential votes up for grabs.

If either or both of these parties can convince non-voters that their vote matters, they could affect the outcome of next month’s election.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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