With the provincial election campaign in full swing, citizens are preparing to participate in the cornerstone of democracy: voting.
But according to Max Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, democracy involves much more than simply casting a ballot. It also requires citizen engagement.
“As important as elections are in a democracy, they are insufficient,” says Cameron.
He says that voter participation and citizen engagement have seen a decline since the 1980s, what he describes as a “disturbing trend” that is clear among young people between the ages of 18 and 24.
“[They]…are not connecting well with our political system,” says Cameron.
The 2009 provincial election saw a record low turnout with a mere 51 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot. The rate of voter participation was significantly lower amongst young people.
According to Elections BC, less than 27 per cent of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 voted, as opposed to 71 per cent of those aged 65 to 75.
Repressing the trend, not the vote
Some are working hard to reverse this trend. Democracy Talks, a joint initiative of Samara Canada and SFU Public Square, is striving to create a more engaged citizenry, especially among youth.
“It’s not strictly about the vote, it’s about the engagement of the citizen, of the individual, in politics,” says Marissa Lawrence, B.C. program coordinator of Democracy Talks.
She says there is more to this than just voting and she thinks that civic engagement is a bigger word and it’s not just political engagement.
“If you don’t exercise your voice in politics, what else don’t you exercise your voice in?” asks Lawrence.
In addition to youth, Samara Canada’s research has shown that low-income earners and newcomers to Canada are also among the demographics more likely to be disengaged.
Lawrence says that one key to engaging those that feel disconnected from the realm of politics is showing people that political engagement is worth their time.
“Politics is a two-way relationship, and if citizens aren’t feeling like they’re getting from their politicians, they’re not willing to give,” she says.
When people from these more commonly disengaged groups were asked why they didn’t vote in the last provincial election, many responded that they were too busy, says Don Main of Elections BC. These findings have spurred Elections BC into running advertising campaigns, developing mobile apps and increasing its online presence, hoping to boost the availability of election information to British Columbians.
How politicians affect voters
Another potential factor in citizens avoiding the ballot box is the emerging trend of politicians campaigning outside of election time.
“I think we’re in a world where politicians increasingly never stop campaigning and that’s what turns off voters and doesn’t help to produce good government,” says Cameron.
He says that with electoral campaigns now at their height in the final days before the May 14 vote, it is an important time to remember that democracy runs deeper than just casting a ballot once every few years, and that working for a cause, volunteering for a politician or engaging in discussion about issues of concern all represent forms of democratic engagement.
“Everyone that lives in Canada belongs to our democracy, so therefore they should be able to take part in the conversation,” says Lawrence.
Regardless of which political party forms the B.C. government after May 14, this election will help to show whether the last four years have resulted in a democratic deficit or surplus in British Columbia. The next four years will give British Columbians a chance to demonstrate that political engagement does not stop when the ballots are counted.