I have voted in every civic, provincial and federal election I could since my 18th birthday. Not to do so, I thought, would have been to take democratic freedom for granted, to abdicate my responsibility as a citizen. But on Tuesday, as my fellow Manitobans went to the polls, I stayed home.
I wasn't too busy. I didn't forget. I wasn't even one of those principled abstainers who dutifully spoil a ballot in vague protest. I just didn't bother voting.
A couple of weeks ago, as the inanity and acrimony of our provincial election campaign wore on, I realized that I no longer accept the popular doctrine that good citizens are obliged to vote regardless of all other factors, or that voting is as central to democracy as the "get out the vote" proponents seem to believe.
I know my view is not popular, but I doubt I'm the only person who, when poised behind a cardboard shield with a little pencil in hand, has felt both a tinge of freedom at the site of a fresh ballot as well as a decided dissatisfaction at the available options, the combative nature of campaigns and the fact that this climatic act of democracy consists only of making a small mark on a piece of paper. I'm not the only person who has felt insulted by the cliches and spin that dominate political debate.
I must qualify my defence of not voting by saying that in some elections, the choices are stark, the consequences substantial and the races tight -- in such cases I vote, while holding my nose. I also believe citizens bear a responsibility for the betterment of society. I don't advocate apathy in general, I just think the popular emphasis on voting has created a simplistic impression of civic responsibility.
While the ability of citizens to occasionally oust legislators is a fundamental tenet of democracy, this does not mean that when the policies of the leading parties are very similar, and both have obviously been willing to sacrifice integrity for the sake of power, that I should still trundle over to the ballot box and choose the lesser of evils.
Here in Manitoba, the incumbent NDP and the challenging Progressive Conservatives both promised more doctors, more nurses, and more police officers. One offered "A better Manitoba for everyone;" the other "Vision, change, progress." What a fount of fresh creativity! Neither said much about the environment. Both sides spent big bucks on attack ads, leaving the moral low ground overcrowded.
To further blur the differences, when the PCs tried, predictably, to depict the NDP as "soft on crime," the NDP responded by pronouncing their unqualified support of the federal Conservatives' tough omnibus crime bill, saying the bill should go even further than it does. The NDP also promised to balance the budget four years sooner than the fiscally conservative PCs.
Commentators said they had never see so little to distinguish between the parties, yet the leaders claimed that much was at stake in this election. Indeed, for them there was much at stake -- their personal positions in the pecking order of power. Though the election resulted in few seats changing hands, NDP leader Greg Selinger solidified his political cred -- after taking over from the popular Gary Doer in 2009, part way through Doer's term -- and PC leader Hugh McFadyen had to give up his dream of occupying the premier's chair, announcing he will step down as leader of his party. For the rest of us, the stakes were relatively low.
Was this election the climax of democracy? In some ways it was. Citizens were allowed to elect leaders in a free and orderly fashion. That is foundational.
But were campaign strategists and backroom PR schemers engaged in democracy? Does antagonism in the airwaves further the cause of democracy? And, while I'm at it, what is the democratic value of lawn signs? How is democracy served by an explosion of simplistic residential advertising? And how exactly is a sign on someone's lawn supposed to influence my decision about who should lead our province -- other than as a particularly inaccurate sort of poll that could inform, or misinform, a strategic vote? Is governing just a glorified high school popularity contest?
Call me cynical if you want, but who is served by pretending this whole process is worthy of unquestioning participation? If voter turnout reached 95 per cent, but most people voted only in purely selfish hopes of reducing their personal tax bills, would that be a good day for democracy?
Canadians commonly say that if you don't vote you can't complain. Is that to say that the purpose of voting is to gain the right to complain freely? Are voting and whining the essence of democratic participation? No more so than freedom of expression, which would have to include the right of non-voters to complain.
Did I take freedom for granted by not voting? Did I snub the millions (or billions) who long for the same opportunity? One could make that argument, but why distill the benefits of our democratic society to a momentary, quadrennial act? Disproportionate emphasis on voting obscures the importance of broader involvement in the betterment of society.
So vote if you choose, but also volunteer (if you are able), stay informed about public issues, knock on politicians' doors and participate in community organizations. Don't waste time telling people they must vote, engage them in the betterment of society.