Friday, January 3, 2014

Mandatory Voting And Social Cohesion

The Toronto Star recently featured the 2013 Atkinson Series: Me, You, Us, journalist and author Michael Valpy’s investigation into social cohesion in Canada — what binds us together, what pulls us apart.

In its final installment, given the decline in voter turnout, one of the suggestions put forth to advance the cause of social cohesion was mandatory voting. It is a notion that I don't personally favour, my reasoning being perhaps reductionist and simplistic: in a mandatory system, the element of resentment would be strong, and some would blithely check off the first name on the ballot just to get out of the polling station. An uninformed vote (and yes,I know there are all ready a lot of them) is worse than no vote, in my view.

Two letters from Star readers offer some interesting perspective on the problems extant in today's democracies:

Fixing the tears in our social fabric, Dec. 22

It isn’t young people not voting that’s pushing democratic legitimacy to a crisis stage, it’s the systemic failure of the political class to address our problems.

Since the triumph of global capital after the fall of the Soviet Union, all political parties fell in line with the neoliberal narrative. Free trade (really a bill of rights for corporations), privatization, offshoring, destruction of the social safety net, ad nauseam, became the bedrock of every political party.
It’s almost funny watching the Liberals and NDP desperately trying to find an issue they disagree with the Tories on. It’s a class consensus. By its nature it excludes an increasing majority.

Michael Valpy’s “solution” of mandatory voting is a pathetic attempt to ignore the cause of this democratic crisis and shoot the messengers. We should be demanding that our political class give us something substantive to vote for.

John Williams, Toronto


The following letter makes reference to a piece that George Monbiot wrote for The Guardian. If interested, you can read it here.

Voting is not the root cause of our crisis, but out of control corporate power may well be. George Monbiot, in the Guardian, makes this case in, “Nothing will change until we confront the real sources of power.”

Monbiot begins, “It’s the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It’s the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It’s the great unmentionable. Corporate Power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates.

“Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time. The political role of corporation is generally interpreted as that of lobbyists, seeking to influence government policy. In reality they belong on the inside. They are part of the nexus of power that creates policy. They face no significant resistance from either the government or opposition, as their interests have been woven into the fabric of all three main parties.”

Monbiot describes the U.K. situation and supports his views with 15 listed references. He ends with, “So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics,” and “when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divided up by a grubby cabal privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?”

The U.K. situation described by Monbiot is not unique; it is the same for most countries.

Frank Panetta, Welland


  1. I understand the argument, Lorne: forcing a choice is no choice. But Frank Graves says there is majority support for mandatory voting.

    My question is,"Have we reached a point where all we care about are the benefits of citizenship, and not its responsibilities?"

    1. An excellent question, Owen, one that reflects the increasingly utilitarian approach to life in North America being promoted and embraced. Love of country and a shared commitment to improve it seems, for many, to be an increasingly quaint notion.

  2. Its an interesting proposition and whilst we all wish more citizens did feel that their vote matters and actually make their views know I suspect it will continue to go the other way. I must say that that Monobots view of corporate influence has much to support it but either way mandatory voting may well be one option. That if everybody turned up to vote our current system of voting could not handle the volume is of course immaterial at this point!

    1. I was reading Owen's post at Northern Reflections, Rural, and I think it is incumbent upon me to do a little research into how mandatory voting has worked in other jurisdictions. I am certainly open to the possibility that my gut reaction against the notion is not necessarily valid.

  3. If we force people to vote they'll go in and simply spoil their ballots. That would be a powerful expression of the illegitimacy of the current political apparatus which is the very reason none of the mainstream parties would consider the idea.

    Both of the letter writers here are correct. This is a failure of politics - the politics of Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau and their respective parties. A dwindling number of the herd will still turn out to vote for them, many of those out of an obsolete sense of civic duty. I doubt there are many who still believe their vote will change the way we're governed. That is the betrayal of the public and the nation by those who are concerned with running the state.

    1. Kind of a vicious cycle, isn't it, Mound? The fewer the number who turn out to vote, the more political parties are emboldened to put their over selfish interests over the needs of the country. The more the parties pursue such policies ......

  4. I just don't know what to think about voting at all. Australia has compulsory voting and they have just voted in a climate change denier/fossil fuel enthusiast/ Great Barrier Reef destroyer. Now. I think that is a bad thing. I think it is bad for Australia and bad for the planet, but if he got a majority in a country with compulsory voting, obviously a majority don't agree with my point of view.
    I think that politicians and policy makers can tell themselves that non-voters are lazy and apathetic, and really, how do you prove otherwise?

    I do vote, but for the most part I don't feel like I have anything to vote *for.* I sometimes spoil my ballot if my choices are particularly noxious. I worked with a young guy once who never voted. He said it gave credence to a system that he felt was wrong. He was not uninformed or uneducated, and he had some interesting political ideas. But as far as statistics are concerned, he just didn't care. I also know people who just really don't care enough to vote. They don't have a clue what government is meant to do or should do and they really don't care enough to find out.

    And yet.

    I belong to a union. Once upon a long time ago I happened to be on a board there. Until they figured out that I was actually interested in democracy and representation the "old boys" told me about various things going on behind the members backs. There was a business agent retiring in one jurisdiction and I got the low-down on the machinations to get him replaced with someone "favorable to the board." Naively, I asked why they couldn't just let democracy happen and work with whoever the local actually elected. I was given a convoluted explanation to which I replied, "I see. Democracy is too important to be left to the members." "EXACTLY!" I was told.

    I don't know how either an uninterested, disengaged electorate or dishonest politicians are remedied, whether voting is mandatory or not.

    1. You make some excellent points here, Karen. They bring to mind the Churchillian observation of democracy being a very bad form of government, except for the fact that all the other forms are much worse.

      I have always voted, but, like you, I have often been motivated to vote against someone or something rather than for someone. I guess I live in hope of better days for democracy; that cannot happen if people withdraw entirely from the political process.

      Your tale of union manipulation takes me back to my teaching days when I found that the same mentality existed in my union, OSSTF. Like yours, they definitely did not like it when some of us thought for ourselves. I always worry that the condescension with which unions treat rank and file members makes their future cloudy. They have not yet learned that they cannot take their members for granted.