What Do We Do About Those Pesky, Apathetic Non-Voters?

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I have heard lots of people blaming the following people for why we didn’t get a positive change in government in BC three weeks ago:

  1. apathetic, nihilistic young people
  2. apathetic people who don’t follow politics
  3. apathetic people who simply don’t vote
  4. bad people who generally don’t care about a better world.

But what really happened in the election? And why are people not voting?

Here’s the what:

Provincial Total 1,313,575 795,946 715,999 146,607 85,783 2,049 56,667 1,803,051
% of Popular Vote 44.14% 39.71% 8.13% 4.76% 0.11% 3.14%
% of Eligible Voters 42.15% 25.54% 22.97% 4.70% 2.75% 0.07% 1.82% 57.85%
Eligible Voters    3,116,626
  1. More people, 42.15%, didn’t vote, than voted for either major party. By far.
  2. The population of eligible voters in BC has increased by more than 50% since 1983, by over one million people, but voter turnout has declined from 70.50% to only 57.85% last month.

And here’s the why:

  1. When we blame problems on those not voting, we conveniently avoid asking them why they didn’t vote.
  2. There is no shortage of pressing public policy issues, filled with controversies: honesty, integrity, greed, privatizing public services, protecting the environment, getting below 400ppm of greenhouse gases, building an economy that creates more justice and a higher quality of life, etc. But parties appear incapable of articulating these issues in a way that engages people sufficiently to get them to vote enough to inspire more participation.
  3. Negative politics dissuades people from voting. There are many helpful and not so helpful definitions of negative. But campaigning on avoiding a broad definition of negative seems to be a failure.
  4. The electoral system is a relic of the 19th century and does not serve us well. But as long as political parties like the crap shoot, they have no motivation to change the system. The BC Liberal government was reelected to absolute power by less than 26% of eligible voters. How is that any kind of incentive for them or any other party to change the electoral system to risk sharing more than 0% of their absolute power of a majority government? It’s not. Catch-22?
  5. Political parties will spend some time in the coming months reviewing what worked and what didn’t. If the review just focuses on how the party could have campaigned differently, it will be a useless, window-dressing exercise, with more obsessions with gimmicks and [now, obviously] unreliable polling to form platforms.
  6. If parties ask why they couldn’t get 20% of the non-voting British Columbians to vote for them; if they ask what is wrong with their relationship with human being voters; if they ask why people don’t see their party as a meaningful vehicle for political, social, economic, or environmental change; if they even check to see if people know what the party even stands for, then…then, they will get a sense of how to make democracy work next time.

Because, frankly, democracy hasn’t been working.

And it’s unclear if anyone cares.

And I’m not talking about those scapegoated apathetic voters/youth/whatever.

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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist. at Politics, Re-Spun
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, professor, speaker, consultant, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website, dgiVista.org.

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2 thoughts on “What Do We Do About Those Pesky, Apathetic Non-Voters?”

  1. I worked for five wonderful years in a small rural school where parents wandered in and out pretty much at will, where there were always animals of some kind making an appearance, where there was a lot of play in many guises and lots of integration of subject material, cross-grade and multi-grade activities and lots of celebration. When the Liberals came to power, the conversation in the staff room seemed to continue right on with who was winning at survivor and what hunk was doing what on some drama or sitcom, who was going on what holiday and the general hum of daily life without much recognition that life was going to begin getting a whole lot more difficult. I began putting together a series of articles and cartoons about pertinent events in a binder called the Friday Package that I left on the staff room table at the end of business on Thursdays. By the time the school was closed two years later, the folder was loaded with a couple of years’ worth of scathing stuff, and the conversation in the room had taken on a new cast. As people became more aware, they seemed more inclined to discuss matters beyond pop culture and some actually got active. In this case, a lot of the indifference was based on ignorance and the feeling that hockey and reality TV are more compelling than politics. We know that our media conglomerates are part of the problem and it’s rare to see any honest journalism practiced outside places like this site, so it’s hard for people to get a clear picture of the damage that’s being done unless someone takes it on to ensure that the information is getting out there and that people get the help they need in seeing what that information means. You’ll know that it’s a thankless task a good part of the time from having been ignored and likely vilified. People like to believe that it’s all OK, and you’re upsetting their internal harmony, at the least, and, for some, shining a light on the fraud that enriches the vilifier. Good on you for doing what you do. For hope’s sake, I submit the following quip:

    When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.

    —Jacob A. Riis

    1. thanks, dan, for your kind words and contributions. i remember the same shift in staffroom conversation 10-12 years ago. though i was always stunned at those who just couldn’t be bothered, even though we almost immediately started seeing support staff fired and increasing vulnerabilities for our special needs and esl students.

      we are now forced to play the long game. thanks for being in it!


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