Years ago in Sierra Leone, we met young Santosh, a survivor of the west African country's brutal civil war, where rebel forces took 30,000 child soldiers -- some forcefully recruited with an injection of cocaine and gunpowder to induce fits of rage -- and handed them AK-47s.
Santosh told us a harrowing story about the lasting consequences of confronting a rebel commander.
During a tenuous cease-fire, the government held an election with the slogan, "The future is in your hands." The rebels subverted the slogan: they cut off the limbs of civilians, targeting those who had ink-stained fingers, the proof they had voted.
When machete-wielding rebels burst into Santosh's school, killing his teachers and violently enlisting students, Santosh marshalled all of his courage to confront the leader. "Mr. Rebel Commander, our village believes in peace. Please leave now."
This angered the commander, who gave Santosh a choice: "short sleeves or long?" Before Santosh could answer, the commander brought a machete down on his right hand, and with a sick grin handed it back to him.
We're not asking Canadians for Santosh's bravery, or for the courage shown by Libyan and Syrian citizens now in violent uprisings against corrupt governments. On Election Day in Canada, we're not going to pander for the youth vote, make rational arguments for democracy, or moral appeals to civic duty. We're making an impassioned plea for your vote while people die in the streets for democracy -- it isn't universal, it's precious.
Emerging democracies understand why it's important to vote. In established democracies, like Canada, contentment breeds apathy, and there's no shortage of strategies to coax us out of complacency.
We've debated proportional representation and fixed election dates (ostensibly to give Canadians more time to mentally prepare, but also to avoid opening polls on holiday weekends). Municipalities experiment with electronic ballots, like in Markham Ont., which encourages some people to vote, but raises serious security and identity concerns.
Compulsory voting forces staggeringly high turnouts in Australia, and when Venezuela scrapped mandatory voting in 1993, turnout in the subsequent election decreased by 30 percent. But an Elections Canada report studied various countries and concluded that mandatory voting was effective only where penalties were enforced. A merely symbolic law is not enough.
Every strategy is meant to cure a supposed cause for apathy.
In the midst of our third federal election in five years, Canadians say they're suffering from "poll fatigue"-- though many don't bother to go to the polls. Voter turnout has been on a steep decline since the late 1980s. And the younger you are, the less likely you are to vote, so democracy is eroding with each generation.
Only 37 percent of youth aged 18 to 24 deigned to cast a ballot in 2008. Most held their votes as ransom and claimed that party leaders ignore them. This generation gets married later, stays childless longer and avoids mortgages. Apparently these are reasonable grounds for opting out of matters pertaining to federal governance, since, they claim, they don't see themselves in the issues.
Why should leaders cater to this prolonged adolescence when their time is better spent canvassing seniors' centres? There's a reason publicity photos from the Harper camp show him playing cribbage and calling bingo numbers. You vote, parties pay attention.
Imagine what our country might look like if it were run by the entire electorate (which is, by the way, the definition of democracy).
In 2008, Stephen Harper's minority government won with 37.6 percent of the vote, with ballots cast by only 58.8 percent of eligible voters, the lowest turnout since Confederation.
At this rate, we're sure to reach a majority -- not a Conservative or Liberal majority, mind you --but the Lazy majority, capital L. They could unite, form an official party, elect a leader and put up signs, if they got around to it. But we doubt they'd have much of a platform, since ignorance is not a great campaign slogan.
You're not aware of the issues? Try the Internet. It's the latest thing to happen to computers. Every major party has a website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, television ads, cross-country campaign stops and constituency offices. Pick one of the above.
There is no excuse not to vote, aside from the extreme lethargy required to find standing in line too troublesome.
On May 2, our act of voting should be an act of solidarity with Santosh, and for the people rallying in the streets of Libya and Syria, living and dying for the right to cast a ballot.