Originally written for eVent! magazine [ep] on November 24th, 2005.
So the civic elections have come and gone, and we’ve now got a federal election looming we are once again confronted with the always-exciting problem of voter apathy. Wait, don’t turn the page yet, hang on this is going to go somewhere. This is going to be interesting. Granted there doesn’t seem to be much interesting about a group of people with no interest, and there is only so many times anyone wants to read about how the youth of today don’t vote because they don’t feel engaged in the political process. However it’s not just youth that are not turning out to the polls, and by the end of this article I’ll mention porn and possibly if you’re good I’ll mention disco.
Yeah now you want to keep reading. Typical.
I think that we have been going about this the wrong way. Mostly when we start to talk about voter turnout we talk about young people not feeling their vote counts and the first instinct is to appeal to the non-voters sense of entitlement and our own national history.
“Your grandfather fought the Nazis so you could decide to vote for either Walter Gray or Sharon Shepard,” we say thinking that the totally awesome choice between the two will make the non-voter leap up and shake their fist grabbing at the nearest pencil ready to vote.
“My God!” we expect them to yell, “I can’t let me grandfather have served in vain. I won’t let Hitler win, I’m going down right now. I’m going to vote!”
Ah the dream world we live in. What really happens is that they shrug and look bored, or if they’re a smartass bring up Britain and France’s promise to protect Poland from German aggression and Canada’s role as a Commonwealth country to join the war alongside Britain in the old Empire.
So then how do we solve the problem? Well first let’s realize that civic politics is about as interesting as memorizing the city bus schedule and then sitting on the street corner to see which lines run late. The fact that the race for mayor seemed largely based on whose family donated land and for what use is perhaps the least engaging issue since Bill ZanDerZalm ran for Premier of British Columbia with a slogan, “What if I charged money for you to look at the flowers in my garden?” When the population is worried about crime, homelessness, housing costs and several other real issues we’ve had a political debate that paid lip service to those issues but was really about one group of rich people not wanting another group of rich people to build a hotel because a group of long dead rich people said so.
Maybe we should take a page out of the election organizing playbook of university student councils, because if there’s anything less significant than and more out of touch with the electorate than local politics it’s definitely student politics. While the average student worries about dealing with loans, rising tuition costs and their marks student councils tend to worry about things like whether or not the coffee on sale at the student lounge is Fair Trade coffee and just how to show the world that they disapprove of American imperialism in Iraq.
I was always surprised that anyone other than the candidates themselves ever turned up to vote. Yet student unions and councils manage it through a variety of ways. First off, they give away prizes. That’s right prizes, they give prizes to people who vote. Since student unions have long ago realized they’re powerless to deal with student loans or tuition costs, they now largely focus on other issues. However when it comes election time some councils and unions do offer as a prize a year’s free tuition to one lucky voter. Imagine, we could have elections sponsored by a BMW dealership or Safeway. It could be renamed, The Blockbuster Video Kelowna Civic Election. One lucky voter gets a year free video rentals or, depending on sponsor, a free BMW or year’s worth of groceries.
If bribing people into voting doesn’t work we could try another staple of student politics, and a recent one in California State politics, the joke candidate. Joke candidates are generally people who run on a platform of “I’ll disco for quarters!” or the fact that they’re a porn actress, but I think that might help liven up the political scene. Don’t you remember how fun it was when the Natural Law Party was showing us how they were going to fly around meditating if they won the federal election?
There are more ways to combat voter apathy, but frankly I just can’t be bothered right now. Come back later, I’m going to take a nap.