Don’t Confuse Voter Apathy with Voter Despair

Whether or not you’re pleased with the outcome of the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, you have to be concerned with the low voter turnout. Only 53.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot. This has politicians and pundits scratching their heads. Don Mills, chairman and CEO of the market research firm Corporate Research Associates summed it up in a CBC interview: “It’s very difficult to understand,” Mills said. “Honestly, I don’t get it.”

Mills also tweeted, “Is it time to institute mandatory voting based on declining voter turnout in Nova Scotia? I am beginning to think so.”

Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt and eighteen other populous countries now have mandatory voting. Considering the sociopolitical climates and economic status of the countries on this list, it’s more than fair to say that forcing citizens to vote does not produce balanced governance.

In fact, one might argue that obliging citizens to vote is counter to the very notion of democracy.

There will always be a segment of the population who just don’t care about governance. Apathy, however doesn’t account for the abysmal voter turnout in Nova Scotia’s 2017 election. There is a growing sense of despair among many Nova Scotians; a sense that the political flavour of the government makes no real difference at the end of the day. Since 1758, the people of Nova Scotia have chosen one political party after another – mainly Liberal and Conservative.

Historically the Liberals have stayed in power until they anger the voters and lose the house to the Conservatives for a term or two. Then the Liberals get elected again for another try. Then the Conservatives … the Liberals … Conservatives … Liberals … ad nauseam.

The common thread that remains woven, unbroken, throughout every term is disappointment. Time after time, generation after generation, Nova Scotia voters elect new governments, hoping for change, buying into new promises of prosperity, equality, accountability and transparency. Time after time, their patience wears thin. It’s no surprise that after ten or more generations of this cyclical behavior, hope has faded. Would-be voters have finally come to the realization that it makes very little difference which party gets elected. Voters are giving up. This is not disinterest or apathy. This is despair.

When almost half of the electorate can’t be bothered to vote, they are sending a message. And it’s not directed at one party or another. The message is clear: The current partisan style of government does not work. We’ve been using the same system since 1758. We have 259 years of data to show how ineffective this tug-of-war really is. The adversarial nature of our legislature is counterproductive, if not destructive.

The actions of politicians in the house of assembly and the language used by candidates while campaigning clearly indicates that their priorities and allegiances lie with their parties, not with the people they are supposed to represent. Most of their energy is devoted to eroding the credibility of  the party that poses the greatest threat to their hold on power.

Rather than forcing citizens to vote, perhaps the time has come to force our elected officials to abandon the competitive practices that are so entrenched in the partisan culture. If politicians were more collaborative and less combative, voters would feel a sense of purpose and pick up their pencils on election day.