More often than not in my life, I've belonged to the "Have Not Voted Party." Let me explain.
I am belatedly political -- having voted for the first time after I turned 40 -- most people don't know that about me yet all my life I have constantly heard and continue to hear this line thrown out as though the speaker originated the argument, "If you don't vote you have no right to complain."
They're right. No argument here. In fact, before I turned forty you couldn't get me into a political conversation if your life depended on it. But for the last decade I've certainly more than made up for lost time.
A few days ago, I went to visit an acquaintance in the hospital here in London, Ontario. Half joking I said, "Oh, you have a TV? You can watch the US debate Tuesday!" "You betcha!" he answers (mimicking Sarah Palin's cadence) and then without missing a beat, his wife looks me dead on and states, "I can't wait to see how Obama defends all his lies."
I changed the subject but it was one of those moments that gives you pause.
Then Monday, I received this 18-word email message from someone who has known me for 15 years and moved to London years before I did: "Seriously, I have very little respect for anyone who still believes in Obama after these past four years."
That's when you say to yourself, if these two incidents happened in our beautiful Forest City, in a country where we are known and sometimes dismissed for our politeness, where people constantly refer to our apathy considering our own politics, imagine the level of rancour south of the border.
But I wasn't surprised. I'm targeted because I now post political updates on my Facebook and Twitter accounts...oh, and maybe for the occasional Huffington Post political blog post where I have expressed my admiration for the current President.
I am left with an odd feeling though as I don't engage in verbal fights of any kind. Never have, never will. I do enjoy a good debate but I don't feel the two openings above are debate worthy. Tell me why you believe as you do and I'll listen, but don't tell me what to think or judge me for coming to my own conclusions.
Telling people how to feel or how they should vote politically does NOT get them out to vote. I have no doubt that's why millions and millions of dollars are spent in the US election trying to influence the undecided-maybe-I-will-maybe-I won't potential voters.
A survey conducted by Environics for the Association for Canadian Studies a few years ago polled some 2100 Canadians for their views on the main reason so many Canadians choose not to vote in elections. Here's how Ontarians responded:
Vote has no impact - 45 per cent
Don't like any of the choices -24 per cent
Not interested in politics - 20 per cent
Issues irrelevant - 5 per cent
No time to vote - 2 per cent
At 45 per cent, the belief that people's vote has no impact suggests a sense of disempowerment. So I decided to do a random poll of fellow Londoners:
Social worker (aged 57): "Never voted, but I would if Pierre Trudeau would rise from the dead."
Retired teacher (aged 66): "I've voted in every election of the last forty years. It's more than a privilege. It's a right!"
Working mother (aged 53): "I haven't voted since Trudeau first ran..." The rest of her comments were inappropriate for printing.
Immigrant (aged 48): "Never voted. Like it would make a difference."
Labourer (aged 27): "Nope. Just never get around to it."
Housewife (aged 24): "Going to, never did before. I don't like who's in charge right now."
Business woman (aged 30-something): "Do I vote? A resounding yes! Always have. It's incredibly important for people to vote, to have their voices heard. Those that do not vote have relinquished their right to complain or praise political decisions. When it comes to politics and how our country or province is run, there is no place for complacency. Get out there and vote! Make a difference and yes one vote can make a difference."
People who vote ceaselessly tell non-voters how proud and how often they voted. That is not motivating many of them to join them on election day.
What changed me?
Certainly not the media -- here or in the U.S. They drive me nuts as they rewrite an ever-changing script -- sometimes in advance. I don't need to tell you how everyone has covered the Romney-Obama debates but you will note the media lambasted Romney for his campaign's mistakes for four weeks prior to the first debate yet one debate performance and it was the game changer. I heard one honest commentator before the second debate say, even if Obama delivers an amazing performance, the media would prefer the current dynamic duo deadlocked-in-the-polls story.
And certainly not the decided voters. I am constantly inundated with messages considering any number of political issues. Sometimes I respond, "I don't understand that issue enough to make an educated comment." That rarely satisfies.
I can think of only one Canadian politician who has inspired me since the days of Trudeaumania: Stephen Lewis who was leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the 70s. Now there was and is a true leader, a well-spoken man who has never stopped practicing what he preaches. In the 80s he was ambassador to the UN representing Canada and then in the 2000s he was the United Nations' special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He even started his own charitable organization that helps people affected and infected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Years ago I had the privilege of dealing with Mr. Lewis, arranging an interview concerning his foundation. I don't think I've experienced a more gracious and modest individual in the public sphere.
I now believe it was his sincerity in motion that inspired my first vote. I didn't realize it then but I now know I always wanted to believe in someone, something politically.
I still consider the right to participate in elections a privilege that involves individual choice but now my choice is to get involved.
Second Annual Hope Rising!
Benefit Concert for Stephen Lewis Foundation November 7 at Roy Thomson Hall
Also celebrating Stephen Lewis' 75th birthday