Who's Running This F$%^$in' Town Anyway?
Here's the problem. Less than 30% of eligible voters will cast a ballot in the municipal election in October even though it's as simple as a key stroke, phone call, or walk through the neighbourhood.
Voter turnout has been going down in Canada for 50 years. Municipal government, the most local and close to home, has suffered the worst decline.
But there's a lot to the story, some good news, and simple changes that can help.
Stats Can has been studying and keeping data records about voting and civic engagement. So we can know a lot about who votes, who doesn't, who's engaged, and who isn't, and why.
Start with a bit of good news. While voting is going down, civic engagement is actually having a bit of a renaissance. If you belong to a community club, society, charity, of social group; if you attend a public meeting, protest, parade, information session, or even yard sale, you are engaging in your community. Online and in real life civic engagement is going up. You can easily see this in our community. Organizations from HOPE FOR WILDLIFE to the Nature Trust, to the effort to save the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes area are examples of citizen civic engagement not just outside voting and government but in spite of it. Supporting local music, being part of local facebook groups, going to farm markets. These are all forms of civic engagement. And more and more people are doing it for themselves.
So what's the problem with government and voting?
First, we can learn from Stats Can who is voting and participating in the community.
The main determining factor is age. Older people vote. Over 90% of seniors vote. Young people vote much less. Other factors are:
The people who don't vote - young people, less educated, poorer, less engaged, less curious, less rooted in the community - have their reasons. They are well documented in the data.
Not interested / Don't care
Don't have time
Did not know / lack of knowledge and information
It's also something people lie about. 14% more people say they voted than actually vote. You can explore the top reasons why people lie here in Psychology Today but it has to have something to do with people knowing at some level that voting maters.
Here's an infographic of Canadian information
If less than 30% of those eligible vote in municipal elections that determine the shape and future of the city and there are many candidates (or no candidates) it means that a very few people, often with very specific agendas, will get to control everything for everyone. Democracy is a long game. It's slow. And it's argumentative. More time is spent on referee calls than game play. In fact, democracy is all argument. It's the argument we have with ourselves about the shape of things to come and it is never settled. Ever.
So what does it matter?
I can't say anything better than Adm. H G Rickover USN. He was the father of the nuclear navy and spent the latter part of his life fighting for education reform in the United States. Here's what he says:
A certain measure of courage in the private citizen is necessary to the good conduct of the State. Otherwise men who have power through riches, intrigue, or office will administer the State at will and ultimately to their private advantage. For the citizen, this courage means a frank exposition of a problem and a decrying of the excess of power. It takes courage to do this, for in our polite society frank speech is discouraged. But when this attitude relates to questions involving the welfare or survival of the Nation, it is singularly unfitting to remain evasive. It is not only possible, but in fact the duty of everyone to state precisely what knowledge and conscience compel him to say. Only complete candor and frankness, deep respect for the facts, however unpleasant and uncomfortable, great efforts to know them where they are not readily available and drawing conclusions guided by rigorous logic can bring many of today’s problems forward.
This quote is taken from a speech about finding purpose in life. You can find the whole text here.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
Ahead of each election season you'll see and hear much machination and hand wringing about low voter turnout. The truth is the vote is only a small part of civic engagement. If people are giving up on government, voting, and the media who is to say they are wrong. When people form and join ad hoc groups for any community issue, when people talk to their neighbours, when they have the courage to engage in social media discussion or online forums, that citizenship of the highest order. Maybe they're right. They're allocating their limited time the best they can to get informed and be heard.
We live in the first truly mature democracy in history. Our country has never known any other kind of rule? Far from being behind, we are on the very cutting edge of history. How we respond and how we change democratic participation will determine the future of the entire world. If we collectively determine that democracy is going to be done in a DIY ad hoc style by only the oldest, richest, male, most well educated, most rooted and well connected socially, then that is how it will go. If we only have any dealings with government when we are angry, affronted and self-interested then that will define democracy in the future. It is our choice as individual citizens to exercise our freedom to be responsible for government or not.
I'll go on to quote Rickover at length:
The unwillingness to act and to accept responsibility is a symptom of America's growing self-satisfaction with the status quo. The result is a paralysis of the spirit, entirely uncharacteristic of Americans during the previous stages of their history. Even the complaints about high taxes and high prices are illusory. Behind them is hidden the reality that the majority, in terms of sheer creature comfort, never had it so good. Those who are still on the outside looking in are not strong or numerous enough to make a political difference.
A major reason why so large a majority is smugly docile is that it has accepted the unwritten rules of the game: Don't rock the boat as long as you get your cut. Why become worked up over corruption as long as there are enough benefits of the fallout to go around? Once the acceptance of corruption becomes sufficiently widespread, effective exposure seems threatening to too many people and interests. Clamor for closing loopholes declines in direct proportion to the number of people who benefit from loopholes of their own. Freedom of speech seems less important when the majority persuades itself that it is not likely ever to want to speak out to complain...
But government does have some say in the matter. If the question is what can government do to change engagement and voting there are many possibilities.
When the current mayor of Halifax came in to office, his first action that impacted me directly changed my life and connection to the community dramatically. Up until the point, like many, I attended City Council meetings at City Hall on Tuesday evenings. It gave me direct access to the stories, issues, politicians, bureaucrats and activists involved in local government. It allowed me to see fist hand every side of local issues and government decision making. The meetings were raucous and raw. They were loud, passionate, and long. I viewed them as important public performances; part poetry, part pro wrestling. And they were a lot of fun. The new mayor moved these evening meetings to 10am on Tuesdays. Whatever the intention the result was immediate. Normal people could not attend. The tone changed dramatically. In my view it was and is a clear form of citizen suppression. Yes, you can watch a feed, or view video after the fact. But the meaning and connection is lost. It's like the difference between having a front row concert ticket and seeing a photo of the concert later.
What should have happened?
The public meeting is the centre tent pole of local government. It's a feature that no other level of government can really offer and it is a foundation stone of democracy. Rather than move the meeting and deliberations of government out of the public eye, local government should do everything it can to get citizens in the room to bear witness to the decision making. No other single thing could more improve local government, citizenship and democracy. Nothing could give us more hope for a better future.
In 1943 Rockwell painted four large pictures illustrating the "four essential human freedoms" outlined by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 address to Congress defining the first Progressive Era . The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—were reproduced as covers of the Saturday Evening Post. The painting is based on Rockwell's favorable impressions of a town meeting he attended in his hometown, Arlington, Vermont.
For a few hundred years now, town meetings have been the local government of towns in northern New England, including the state of Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Mass., Maine, and Connecticut. On the first Tuesday in March of every year, in towns all over New England, citizens come together at a local school or other large meeting place to make decisions for their community. It’s the last gasp of winter, and a sure sign that spring will come is the annual flowering of grassroots democracy.
Town Meeting dates to the European settlement of New England, and it persists today in town halls, schools and auditoriums. More powerful than simple Town Hall meetings, the New England Town Meeting is a form of direct democracy in which a community gathers and votes on budgets and policies.
A fan of Town Meetings once called them ‘a little primitive nursery of republican truth.‘ Others have called them ‘misery.’
In some important ways the town meetings the most fundamental unit of democracy. A nursery for engagement. They are face-to-face democratic assemblies. They take place at the most local level: in New England the towns are mostly under 2500 people. It's thought that an optimum community size is about 7-10,000.
The idea is that local government could help by encouraging rather than discouraging public meetings. Town halls, Council meetings, plebiscites, lecture days, debates all have the potential to fire up the democratic spirit. I think of it like TV. It would work if it was thought of as a show, which it surely is. Big characters, high stakes, unique access, and big payoffs to the stories.
Halifax government, for nefarious or mischievous reasons I believe, went in the wrong direction when the current administration came in to power. We should be putting government and the process of government on the most stark display, warts and all, not hiding it away and pretending it's all smooth sailing just because we are in a period of unprecedented good times with a slick bunch of politicians sitting in council. It's only democracy if people can see it happening and join in when they like.