POLICY WORKING PAPER #4
Governments in Canada are increasingly being elected by a smaller and smaller percentage of eligible voters. In British Columbia, voter turnout has been steadily declining, and so has the number of registered voters. The official voter turn out in the 200l provincial election was 71 percent, but in fact this figure represents only about 55 per cent of the province’s potential eligible voters – about 700,000 potentially eligible voters were not even registered.
The impact of incomplete voter registration and low voter turnout is intensified by our “first past the post” electoral system, where candidates are elected by a simple majority of voters in every constituency. An unfortunately revealing example of how the current electoral system does not pass any strong test of being “true democracy” is the 2001 provincial election. In that election, a total of 916,888 votes were cast for the Campbell government. This amounted to less than 32 percent of potential British Columbia voters. And that 32 percent of potentially eligible voters was able to elect 97 percent of MLA’s.
A further huge concern is the fact that youth participation and registration rates are even lower than adult rates. A recent study by Elections Canada estimates that less than 25 per cent of those aged 18 to 25 bothered to vote in the last federal general election.
What are the characteristics of a healthy democracy? Do low rates of voter participation and involvement in conventional political activities – joining political parties, attending conventions, working on election campaigns – matter? Why do people, and especially young people, seem to be so disinterested in politics? Do people prefer, and have adequate opportunity, to express their views and influence political decisions by means other than voting and direct political participation?
These are question which should engage anyone seeking political office. This campaign does not have all the answers. Instead, it proposes a number of policy ideas, relating both to the New Democratic Party and to the British Columbia electoral system, for consideration and discussion.
Start with ourselves
If the New Democratic Party wants to be a credible advocate of democratic reform, it must first look to itself. The following actions are proposed for consideration of the Party membership, and recommended for adoption as soon as possible:
Institute a one-member, one vote system for the selection of party leader.
Launch a discussion within the Party and labour movement about modernizing our relationship, particularly in light of federal government campaign finance reforms.
Formalize and enforce party policy to accept only donations from individuals.
Strengthen the advisory caucus system, to provide a better opportunity for groups concerned with specific issues to inform the policy development process.
Supporting electoral reform
The process currently underway to appoint a citizens’ assembly to consider new options for electing Members of the Legislative Assembly is an interesting experiment. Its timeframe is quite long: if it is able to frame a proposal which can be brought forward as a referendum question, a referendum will be held in conjunction with the May 2005 provincial election. If the referendum result is in favour of electoral reform, changes will be introduced in time for the 2009 election. Changes to the British Columbia electoral system instituted according to this process should be supported.
If the citizens’ assembly process falters, other approaches to electoral reform should be initiated, with a goal of creating an electoral system in British Columbia that incorporates the principle of proportional representation.
A recent study done by Elections BC indicates that the number of potentially eligible voters who are actually registered to vote is lower in BC than in any other Canadian jurisdiction except the Northwest Territories. In the 2001 BC provincial election only 78 percent of potentially eligible voters were registered to vote, compared to, for example, 93 per cent in the 1998 Quebec election. The reason why British Columbia does such a poor job in registering its voters needs to be found out and addressed.
Ways to improve the extremely low rate of participation by young voters need to be considered. One theory explaining low young voter participation is that people between the ages of 18 and 20 tend to have very busy lives and are preoccupied with things like getting an education, changing their residence, traveling. It has been that suggested 16- and 17 year olds are in some ways easier to engage, because their attention is less distracted by major life events and because most of them are still reachable through the education system. The conclusion is that if 16- and 17 year olds become interested in politics, they will be more inclined to develop a life-long habit of voting and generally paying attention to politics. The idea of extending the provincial voting franchise to voters younger than 18 should be put on the public agenda as one worth considering.
Supporting other forms of participation
Past NDP governments in British Columbia have introduced very important reforms to make governments more accountable. For example, the Barrett government was responsible for the introduction of Hansard, and the Harcourt government passed freedom of information legislation. Offices of the Legislature and functions of the government which support “open, accessible government”, such as the Office of the Ombudsman and freedom of information access, need to be fully funded and supported, reversing the direction being taken by the current government.
Traditional systems of political representation evolved by organizing people based on where they live – we elect local governments, local MLA’s and local MP’s. Today, the Internet allows individuals with similar concerns to communicate quickly and effectively with each other, even if they do not live in the same neighborhood, town or even region. At the same time, British Columbians remain deeply committed to the local – to their neighbourhoods, communities and the “wild places” they connect with. Can the choice between “local” and “centralized” decision making be reconstructed to become the goal of “informed, organic” decision making? A political party, both in terms of its own party structure and the actions it takes if it forms government, should strive to utilize new technologies and new social forces to foster more representative, better informed and smarter decision making.
Please send comments on the Campaign for Change policy working papers to [email protected] before