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April 29, 2011

Why aren't people voting?

Marjaleena Repo

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At Guelph University Conservative operatives recently tried to nullify the vote of several hundred students at a poll set up to facilitate student voting. They failed, but there is a far subtler and more effective way of eliminating troublesome voters, students, Aboriginals, the poor and the elderly alike.

In 2008, Elections Canada introduced stringent voter ID requirements that cannot easily be met You have to show proof not only of your identity but of your street address, and this is where the problem lies as such documentation is not easy to come by, and often impossible. (Take me: I have ID galore with photos and signatures, but nothing with my address, so I must take a utility or phone bill with me to vote, something not everyone can do unless the bills are in their name.)

There are hundreds of thousands of Canadians whose address is a box number and that is where wholesale rejection occurs: a box number is not acceptable.

Among them are large numbers of rural residents and Aboriginals on reserves where street names don’t exist and everybody has a box number. (A scrutineer in a 2008 campaign in northern Saskatchewan that I managed reported that fifty aboriginal voters were turned away for this reason in one poll alone — with 180 odd polls in the riding and you can see how elections are lost and won through the denial of the vote.)

Elections Canada does not keep track of rejected voters but had post-election surveys showing that almost 5% of registered voters, (which in 2008 was nearly 500,000 of 13.7 million) “said they did not vote because they lacked proper documentation.”

How older citizens are affected was documented by former Victoria University president Howard Petch who went to vote as he had always done since WW II, with a wallet full of ID — passport, various health cards, and voter registration card —  none of which were deemed acceptable.

No longer driving he did not have a license which could (but doesn’t always) have an address. Wheelchair bound, he was told to go home for more documentation or to wait around to get someone to vouch for him. Outraged, he refused and became one of the rejected. (Elsewhere, countless seniors were turned away from polls at seniors’ residences for the same reason.) Today Petch believes that there is a deliberate plan to keep voters away who are the most discontented and likely to vote against the status quo.

Our voter participation was already decimated by a major change in a system that used to work well. Until the late ‘90s we had the world’s best voter registration system. All potential voters were enumerated after an election was called, and consequently the voters’ lists were highly accurate and the voter needed only to prove they were the person in question, not where they lived.

With enumeration, a high percentage of eligible voters were registered; today we do not even know how many can’t make the list as it is now left up to citizens to register themselves, by hook or by crook.

Educated and privileged classes have an easier time; others can face overwhelming difficulties.

We have moved from the world-class Canadian system of universal voter registration to the American-style system of survival of the fittest, each man or woman for him/herself. Large-scale voter inequality has reared its ugly head and with it comes falling voter participation, from 67% in ’97 when the last enumeration took place to 61% in 2000 and a historic low of 58.8% in 2008.

Another change added to falling rates. The campaign period was shortened in ’97 to a minimum of 36 days from 47. Time is central to citizen participation in elections, and there can’t be much of it when the campaign whirls by at break-neck speed – neither the candidates nor the voters have an opportunity to engage in a meaningful way. 

Elections have become virtual ones, taking place mostly in the media, run by pollsters and pundits, and not in our neighbourhoods and communities where they belong. (It is interesting that with a 55 day campaign in 2006 participation rose to 65% from 61% in 2004, then fell below 60% in the last election with a 37 day campaign.)

There is much ado about “voter apathy”, with a focus on young people, who in creative and desperate ways are urged and “mobbed” to vote.

Unfortunately, much of this effort is barking up the wrong tree: unless we can guarantee that hundreds of thousands of Canadians who are eager to vote can actually do so, we are subjecting them to a nasty piece of Catch 22 where the victims of voter obstruction get the blame for being apathetic and not doing their civic duty.

The simple solution is to bring back voter enumeration with all its democratic benefits, and to extend the campaign period to a minimum of 47 days that served us so well.  

MARJALEENA REPO was a campaign manager for David Orchard in two federal elections, in Prince Albert 2000 and Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River in 2008. She was the manager of David Orchard’s two Progressive Conservative party leadership campaigns, in 1998 and 2003. She resides in Saskatoon and can be reached at or 306-244-9724.

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