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Margin Notes

To vote, or not to vote

Shouldn’t voting be the minimum requirement for political engagement?


I heard two University of Ottawa students being interviewed on the local CBC afternoon show All in a Day last week. Although the students study in Ottawa, they reside across the river on the Quebec side and were being interviewed about the Quebec student protests and the provincial election to be held on Sept. 4. Asked who they’ll vote for, one of the students replied that she’d likely not vote, essentially because she felt no single party represented her particular views.

I bring this up because I heard much the same response from a couple of the inaugural 3M Student Fellows whom I’d met in June. When I asked them if they had voted in previous elections, they demurred, saying they didn’t really see the point because all the large parties were the same and the smaller parties had no chance of winning.

I am constantly dismayed by this attitude towards voting. Young adults, of course, are hardly the only ones neglecting their civic duty, but I found this position particularly surprising from these four students because they seemed otherwise very politically aware and engaged.

Political engagement can, and ideally should be, more than just voting once every few years. But shouldn’t voting be the minimum requirement?

There is a lot that organized groups can do to mobilize the public and change public opinion, and Quebec’s student groups have shown this over the past six months. Their actions have generated a lot of healthy discussions about the benefits of postsecondary education and the role of government in promoting it.

But, in the end, governments do the governing, and if you don’t like how they’re doing, then you replace them. And the only legitimate way to do that in a democracy is through the ballot box. Plus, if more young people voted, governments might be more likely to take their views into account. If you don’t vote, I just don’t see how you can then gripe about the government you’re stuck with.

It is certainly true that the political party structure, as well as our first-past-the-post electoral system, can be frustrating. I would love to see the introduction of a fairer system of proportional representation. But, for the moment, this is the system we have – and probably the only way that, too, will change is at the ballot box.

Interestingly, the recently released manifesto of the more militant of Quebec’s student groups, CLASSE, extols the principle of “direct democracy,” which should be “experienced, every moment of every day.” The group, however, is dismissive of “representative” democracy, which “comes up for air once every four years, for a game of musical chairs.” Curiously, the manifesto goes on to claim that, for the “elites,” their idea of democracy works “only when we, the people, keep our mouths shut.”

Not voting is the ultimate shutting of your mouth.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Reuben Kaufman / August 22, 2012 at 12:34

    For those who don’t vote because, for whatever reason, they don’t know who to vote for, or they don’t believe it “makes a difference”, I have an answer.

    I would tell people who don’t have a preference for any of the candidates, or who are ignorant of the issues for whatever reason, to go to the polls anyhow and spoil their ballot. This accomplishes two things: (1) the most important is that the individual has exercised their responsibility (and privilege) of honouring such an important democratic right that we should all cherish and (2) the fact of going to the polls and casting a ballot would have a positive effect on the participation numbers.

    This is parallel to the responsibility of Jury duty. A couple of years ago I was called up, and when we all assembled on the day, the case had just been dropped, so we weren’t needed. I was impressed when the judge thanked us all because we had still fulfilled our civic duty even if no trial was held.

    Incidentally, I personally get a very emotional feeling when I cast my vote. I know that my vote “doesn’t make a difference”, but I still get a lump in my throat when I do it. It’s a feeling of enormous gratitude for living in a country with such strong democratic traditions. We sometimes forget that the vast majority of people on this planet don’t have this privilege of participating in honest elections. I used to make a point of bringing my young children to the polls with me, having the feeling that this would make them ultimately value the privilege that they would get. I really must ask them (they’re all adults) whether they vote regularly!

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