Is the ballot box now passe?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 July 2004)

No matter how much you beg them, many thousands of citizens decline to vote. You can run TV ads urging them to play their part, you can insist that it's their duty, and you can even, as Canada recently did, run a really fascinating election, with the outcome in doubt right to the end.

Still, the non-voting population keeps growing. In June, the percentage of eligible citizens casting ballots hit a new low, 60.5. Outlandish as it seems, people were less engaged than in the election of 2000, one of history's all-time yawners.

This tendency disturbs everyone committed to electoral politics, so commentators are anxious to fix the blame. Villains aren't hard to find.

If only politicians and journalists would do their jobs, surely the numbers would stop falling. Voters would be inspired if we had more impressive leaders, if we concentrated on issues that really matter, or if we tried proportional representation. Schools should teach our political structure to the young (though I for one wouldn't like to explain to students why, when health care remains in provincial jurisdiction, the federal prime minister keeps ranting about it).

We often call this a Canadian problem, but it crops up in all democracies from Britain to Japan. Non-voting among the young has become a special worry. In the Canadian election of 2000, only one in every five citizens aged 18 to 20 voted; among people over 58, about four in five voted. Once, numbers like those encouraged a hopeful theory that young people would slowly develop the voting habit. Alas, recent research disagrees. Those who don't vote when they are 25 apparently don't vote when they are 35 or 40.

We tend to think of this as a temporary phenomenon, but it may turn out to be a structural change, as permanent as most political developments. We are apparently going through a transformation in the way people see themselves acting in society.

Political historians may eventually identify our present historic period as a time when the political instinct migrated from electoral to non-electoral politics and people in large numbers transferred their political impulses to a multitude of highly specialized causes. This change has rarely been articulated and seems to be mainly unintentional; yet it's altered key elements of public life.

Gouverneur Morris, a drafter of the American Constitution, once remarked that we shouldn't see politics as merely the organizing of government; we should consider it "that sublime science which embraces for its object the happiness of mankind." Today the citizens aren't growing unpolitical so much as they are becoming differently political.

The victims' rights movement, which has affected every criminal court in Canada during the last 15 years, reflects an intensely political impulse. So do the protection of old-growth forests, the attack on globalization, the attempt to ban child pornography, every association for the defence of a neighbourhood, and the infinite variations of feminism.

Ethnic associations, when they assert the rights of their members, express identity politics.

The new media of the last 15 years, above all the Internet, have heightened the power of these movements, and in fact helped create some of them. Most of these causes did not exist in any formal sense in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when voting in three successive elections hit 80%, a number we haven't reached since.

Old-time pols denigrate what they call "single-issue" politics because it seems likely to be transient and does less for Canadian nationhood than the (sometimes) unifying national parties. Nevertheless, narrow-gauged organizations absorb the same passions that citizens might have put into electoral politics a few years ago. They can also produce more obvious and satisfying results.

Gay Pride Day, a political statement on a grand scale, surely makes its point ("we're queer, we're here") far more effectively than anything that the same 100,000 people could say with ballots. If you were infuriated by the failure of the law to punish drunk drivers, would it be wiser to help your MP get re-elected, thereby winning the right to whisper in his ear, or to found Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and begin a vigorous process of publicly shaming both the criminals and those who let them get away with their crimes?

For years, we can now see, the ballot box has been losing out to fresh and forceful competitors. Humans have not ceased to be what Aristotle called them long ago, political animals. But some of them are ceasing to be voting animals.

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