THE BLOG
04/01/2014 05:32 EDT | Updated 06/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Why a Non-Voter Is Likely To Become a Habitual Non-Voter

A citizen-based view of elections takes the view that voter participation independent of party is an important democratic goal in itself. That our democracy is healthier and stronger if more citizens exercised their right to vote habitually. Only one player in the electoral process has this interest at its core, and that is the independent, non-partisan Chief Electoral Officer.

The following is my statement on March 31st to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedures and House Affairs studying C-23, the Fair Elections Act.

Thank you for the invitation to appear before you tonight. It is a privilege to be here.

I want to congratulate you on both your openness to listening to many diverse views, and your willingness to consider how to incorporate improvements meant to strengthen our democratic system and reflect our shared democratic values. Doing so will reinforce the value of the Parliamentary process to Canadians.

The perspective I offer is my own, based on personal engagement in elections -- federal and provincial -- as a partisan; but also as Deputy Minister to the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy established by Premier Lord to examine and make recommendations on how to strengthen and modernize the province's democratic institutions and practices. A key focus of our work was how to bring about higher civic engagement and participation of New Brunswickers, particularly young voters, in the political and governmental processes.

Few issues are so critical to Canada's democracy than the conduct of elections. The passionate interest shown by many Canadians in the proposed Fair Elections Act reinforces this notion.

Beyond the fine print of what's in this bill, it is equally important that Parliamentarians consider the core democratic values and principles of Canadians, and determine whether and to what extent they are reflected in the Fair Elections Act.

When it comes to how elections are run, these values include fairness, transparency, accountability, accessibility, and inclusiveness.

For while political parties and their candidates are the main practitioners of electoral democracy in our parliamentary system, they do not own it. We do, as citizens and voters.

These are not idle words. There is a world of difference between a party-based view of elections and a citizen-based view of elections, and how either would be reflected in an elections act.

Political parties are absolutely necessary features of our system. In many ways they are the gatekeepers for the political process. They give voters a choice of views and candidates. They proactively engage with voters. They provide the basis for electoral legitimacy necessary when forming a government. Strong parties are good for democracy.

But political parties are -- legitimately -- self-interested organizations. They compete for the most votes not for others, but for themselves. Turnout for your party is paramount, not for the country overall.

A citizen-based view of elections takes the view that voter participation independent of party is an important democratic goal in itself. That our democracy is healthier and stronger if more citizens exercised their right to vote habitually.

Only one player in the electoral process has this interest at its core, and that is the independent, non-partisan Chief Electoral Officer.

Strengthening, or at least maintaining, the role of Elections Canada in fostering voter knowledge and participation in elections is as basic as it gets when it comes to a responsible democracy such as ours.

Section 18(1) of the current Canada Elections Act allows this to occur. The Fair Elections Act amends this section and would remove this public education and information role, replacing it with a much more minimal role on communicating just the basics of voting. This is a move away from the principles of a citizen-based voting system.

Accessibility to voting is a critical feature of turnout and participation in every election. Elections Canada needs to keep doing this and will of course be able to do so under this bill.

But knowledge about elections and motivation in voting is equally important for the long-term health of our democracy. The steady decline in youth turnout over many elections is an alarming signal that our democracy is not reaching all those it should. Recent elections have seen only about 40 per cent of eligible youth, aged 18-24, turn out to vote.

There are several reasons for this: less interest and attachment to conventional politics; lack of knowledge of democratic institutions and processes; a general decline in political deference over many years.

But the result is the same: a one-time non-voter is more likely to become a habitual non-voter. This is something all of us, citizens and parties, have a shared stake in preventing. And it is something that this bill should worry about too.

Improving civic literacy - the knowledge young Canadians have about political issues and our voting system -- is central to fostering more inclusiveness and hence, participation within it. Elections Canada has done this in the past, for example, by supporting Student Vote Canada. But it won't be able to in the future.

By removing the ability of Elections Canada to engage with Canadians, especially young Canadians -- not just on the mechanics of voting but the importance of voting -- we lose a key preventative tool, and risk undermining the future health of our democracy. I honestly do not believe any MPs on this committee or in the House of Commons want this.

I urge you to consider how you might positively incorporate such a role into this bill as a continued long-term investment in our democratic system.

Thank you.

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