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Were You Manipulated By Voter Supression?

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The Ontario election outcome was hugely important for Canada. Ontarians have traditionally preferred to put in place the checks and balances of divided government -- Trudeau/Davis, Mulroney/Peterson, Chretien/Harris -- and this election was no different. Ontarians chose a Liberal Government to provide a counterbalance to the Harper Government and, in Toronto, to Mayor Ford. Faced with tough times, Ontarians chose Dalton McGuinty's responsible 'Forward Together' approach and denied Stephen Harper the Conservative 'hat trick' he had boasted about at Mayor Ford's barbeque.

Although Ontarians utilized their ability to vote differently provincially and federally, sadly way less of them actually voted. This is a truly worrying trend. It also no surprise that, as the 'cynicism thermometer' rises, voter turnout drops.

It is important that we understand what is really going on. This isn't by accident. I generally have no truck with conspiracy theorists. But I believe that there is a concerted campaign by right-wing parties to do everything in their power to reduce the voter turnout. Negative advertising fuels the flames of cynicism and voters stay home. Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, once said that if automobile executives denounced one another's cars and safety records the way politicians speak about one another, no one would ever buy a car. He has beautifully explained decreased voter turnout.

I believe voter suppression tactics are working. They are effectively eroding the fundamentals of our democracy; when citizens are turned off and tune out, the right-wing 'perma-mad' folks vote in great numbers regardless. I think that when cynicism rises, the youth, tenants, indigenous peoples, new citizens stay home. Some of the most vulnerable, those who benefit the most from government services, are persuaded that it doesn't matter if you vote or not and that all government is bad. When government is caught doing something wrong, the response that "the previous government did it too" works.

Elizabeth May has described a sinister strategy of 'voter abandonment'. Lawrence Martin described it in a column in the Globe and Mail as an effort "to drive the ever-diminishing participation in Canadian elections down further... it then becomes a matter of which party can get its base to vote in the largest numbers."

Martin continues, "In the 2008 election campaign, (May) maintained, Mr. Harper purposely drove down voter participation in several ways. He called a snap election, he had the minimum numbers of days for a campaign, he had election day right after the long Thanksgiving weekend, he had changes made in the Elections Act that meant people couldn't vote without additional ID, and his attack ads increased cynicism toward politics. The result was that every party's total vote number went down, except the Green Party's. In the May view, the cynical plan for the future is to drive down the numbers even more."

I am not pessimistic -- I believe voter suppression will ultimately fail. Young people particularly have an innate sense of when they are being manipulated.

St. Paul's is one of the youngest riding in the country. It is not the richest and a majority of its residents are tenants. Yet in the 2006 federal election we were proud to have a 72.2 per cent voter turnout (64.7 per cent nationally), and were saddened to see it drop to 64 per cent in 2008 (58.8 per cent nationally). In the 2009 provincial by-election in St. Paul's the voter turnout was a worrying 33.26 per cent. Voter turnout in by-elections tends to be low, but even the turnout in the 2007 provincial general election was only 52.10 per cent.

We work hard in St. Paul's on our 'Democracy between Elections' model with weekly on-line chats, regular townhalls and roundtables, 'neighbourhood check-ups,' classroom visits as well as our bi-annual St. Paul's Summit in which all elected representatives come together to hear from constituents. We believe that meaningful engagement is a strong antidote to apathy and cynicism.

We can and must do better. As we say at the door, "if you don't vote, you don't get to complain." But there is something sinister happening to put people off politics. The belief that politicians are all just as bad as one another or that it doesn't matter if I vote or not means that people who may not share our views will determine the direction of our beloved city, province, country. Democracy is dependent upon good people running for public office and citizens paying attention and then participating in the choice of their representatives. We cannot continue on this downward slide. Voter turn-out is a serious metric on the health of our democracy.

Thankfully enough Ontarians were paying attention on Oct. 6 to elect a Liberal Government. But I believe that with a greater voter turnout, Dalton McGuinty would have had a majority.

We need to spend the years before the next municipal, provincial and federal elections developing the civic literacy and earning back respect for our democratic institutions in order to ensure that cynicism is down, and voter turn-out is up. Only then can our governments reflect the needs of all of its citizens -- especially its most vulnerable.