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Transcript CBC "Commentary" , Monday, July 5, 2004

"There's more to 'voter apathy' than meets the eye."

by Marjaleena Repo

See also: "Virtual Democracy" by Marjaleena Repo.


About 40 per cent of eligible voters didn't cast ballots in last week's federal election. Marjaleena Repo is a political organizer and activist in Saskatoon who has experience working on federal campaigns. On Commentary, she says we have to look past so-called voter apathy.

Marjaleena Repo:

Election turnout has now dropped to an alarming 60 per cent. Everyone agrees "voter apathy" has reached epidemic proportions driven by widespread cynicism over politics and politicians.

But what happened to drop the turnout rate from the 70-75 per cent range in as late as '88, '93 and '97, to 10-15 per cent less in 2000 and 2004? Do politicians disappoint us more now than they did 10 years ago? Or could there be another reason for the disappearing voter?

Year 2000, the first year of record low turnout, was also the first year without door-to-door enumeration, a familiar practice in previous elections. This voter-friendly and accurate method of compiling the voters' list was thrown out as a cost-cutting measure and replaced by the so-called permanent voters' list. At the same time the election campaign period was shortened to 36 days, a drop of 12 days (and far from the 60 days in 1984).

It is now up to the individual to get him or herself on the voters' list, by hook or by crook, while previously it was the duty of the state. Some get on through their tax forms and car license applications, etc., others do not, and these others are an ever-increasing number, as I was to discover in the 2000 election in Prince Albert. Far from being apathetic, a great number of people tried various strategies to get on the list, and failed. Others were placed in the wrong polls and unable to get to them; they, too, were disenfranchised. None of this would have happened with fresh enumeration.

A 2003 study by Jerome Black at McGill University confirmed that the change in registration has contributed to low voter turnout and increased voter inequality.

The shortness of the election campaign affects participation negatively, too. The campaign speeds by as a frantic spectacle, with little opportunity for the voters - of any age - and the candidates to encounter each other in a meaningful way. The pace for a 36 day campaign is very different from the 60 days we used to have. The voters are reduced to heckling their televisions while the candidates run like frenzied rabbits through our neighbourhoods, dropping off leaflets and hoping that no one stops to talk to them so they can cover all their territory. In my own riding, Saskatoon Blackstrap, there wasn't one proper all candidates meeting, and the situation was similar elsewhere.

So there is more to the "voter apathy" than meets the eye. I propose that we start re-enfranchising our citizens by bringing back voter enumeration and returning to a longer campaign. And we must make sure that the third element of the so-called electoral reform, internet voting, never happens. That would put a technological nail in the coffin of voter participation.

For Commentary, I'm Marjaleena Repo in Saskatoon.

Marjaleena Repo is David Orchard's senior political advisor.

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