As Ontario heads towards another provincial election on Oct. 6, candidates are tackling all issues except perhaps the one most important for an election — the physical act of casting a ballot. Weak voter turnouts are not new to Ontario (52.8% in 2007), nor Canada (61.4% in 2011 up from 59.1% in 2009).
Voter apathy (VA) is a bigger threat to Canadian democracy than international terrorism. The remedy lies in “direct cyber democracy.” Direct democracy a la ancient Athens is not possible in the modern world. We require a tool that can simultaneously connect everyone, organize and streamline their opinions, and also be accessible at the leisure of the user. The internet was born for this. As Iran in 2009 and the recent Arab Spring events have proved, the internet and social media are very efficient, flexible, and malleable tools for people to express and coordinate grievances.
The internet can provide the flexibility, empowerment, and critical two-way communication between citizen and government necessary for direct democracy in the modern age. This is the age of “e-democracy.”
So how can the internet help curb VA? If we deconstruct VA, we can see three dominant causes for it: the belief that the system does not work; the feeling that politicians do not care; and the idea that one vote has no impact. Exploring these three roots, we come to three fundamental problems perceived by the electorate. The feeling that the system not working is a perception that the politician is not responding to popular opinion — this is a problem of communication. That the politician does not care is a result of coordinated (often funded and/or lobbied) interests taking precedence over individual complaints — this is a problem of electorate fragmentation. Lastly, the idea that one vote has no impact comes from a feeling of individual insignificance — a problem of empowerment. How can the internet provide empowerment, consolidation, and better communication between state and citizen?
In the recent Canadian election, an online “electoral literacy application” named Vote Compass was launched. The tool asked users questions on a variety of issues and then compared their “score” to Canada’s political parties on the political spectrum. Within the month, two million users had run the compass. The tool brought out much discussion both in the media and on the internet as well as providing important data. The data showed how users felt about issues based on their political leaning and their constituency.
With regards to solving the three problems of VA, the Vote Compass is a step in the right direction. An established year-round, government-run “e-forum” could provide essential services to democracy. Firstly, non-binding plebiscites would become cheap, easy, and widely accessible, giving the government access to the most accurate popular mood. More importantly citizens would feel that their opinions do matter and affect government. Secondly, being able to communicate with other Canadians across all regions would make it easier for smaller interests to lobby government because their support would not be split up among constituencies. Lastly, and most importantly, because the tool is on the internet, citizens can partake in the discussion at anytime. Circumstances that would normally limit a citizen’s ability to communicate with their government (work/chores, distance, out of country, etc.) would be overcome by the internet. A citizen can communicate and organize their political convictions during commercials, lunch break, at the grocery store, or at the pump. Citizens can use their PC, library, tablet, or smart phone.
E-democracy mitigates voter apathy. Citizens are bought back into the system. Voter turnouts increase. Democracy is preserved.
Photo Credit: alancleaver_2000