Viewpoint: Voter enumeration, poll bans can bolster democracy
The StarPhoenix, April 11, 2016
By Marjaleena Repo
Ever since the writ was dropped on the 2016 Saskatchewan election, voters were inundated with almost daily polls declaring the Saskatchewan Party a "landslide winner" and its leader Brad Wall "the most popular premier in Canada," and you better believe it.
The landslide predictions did not even stop on election day, with media repeating the same upbeat story. When the dust settled, Brad Wall had—surprise, surprise—won by a landslide and has been mightily backslapped in the media for his accomplishment.
The congratulators, however, have paid scant attention to the fact that there has been a reverse landslide in voter turnout, which has gone down from the 66 per cent reported in 2011 to 57 per cent this time, a significant drop. (These percentages are from registered voters only, not from the larger number of those eligible.)
There is no doubt that the pummelling of voters with daily polls and commentaries on the polls that said Wall had already won had the predictable effect on people, discouraging them from voting at all. Study after study on the effect of opinion polls on voting has documented the "What's the use?" attitude such polls can create in the electorate, to the detriment of democratic participation.
There is dubious value in the electors being told who will win an election. Meanwhile, covering election as a horse race deprives the voters of in-depth media investigation of issues that the campaigns cover, and especially the issues they ought to cover.
But there are also other factors for the declining turnout. Elections Saskatchewan did no door-to-door enumeration for this election, leaving it up to each person to get themselves registered, by hook or by crook. In a society divided by class and race, some are better positioned to get themselves on the list while for others it can become an insurmountable challenge – particularly with a short 28-day campaign that doesn't leave much time for a task that can be surprisingly complicated.
Saskatchewan also has introduced complicated voter ID requirements similar to what the Harper government introduced in 2007, creating a veritable obstacle course for those who previously had voted with ease and for those who are new to voting. The requirement that a voter has to be able to show valid ID with a street address is easier said than done, as many valid personal identification documents such as a treaty card or student card do not have an addresses. The holder must jump through various hoops to find an additional document with the address.
Those whose mail is delivered to a postal box are out of luck, as such an address isn't accepted.(When this requirement was introduced federally in the 2008 election, an Elections Canada survey showed that 500,000 Canadians had not been able to vote because they didn't have the correct ID.
The combined effects of constant polling blaring about a "landslide" and the obstacles to registration lead to fewer citizens voting. Thus landslide wins for the ruling party are likely to continue, as voters who are not enamoured with its policies are less likely to be able to cast a ballot. The great unwashed won't be darkening the doors of polling stations, thus preserving the hegemony of those in power.
This situation is unacceptable in a country that claims to be democratic. To maximize voter participation and increase equality among voters such obstacles must be removed. The publishing of poll results during an election campaign must be prohibited (with parties and others free to poll to their hearts desire), leading to more serious coverage of election issues.
Door-to-door enumeration must be re-introduced as the most effective and, yes, most democratic method of voter registration, which would immediately make the complicated street-address ID requirement superfluous. Enumerators would, as they always did, register the voters at addresses where they live.
Voter equality is too important to be sacrificed for the benefit of pollsters and the media, and for the convenience and comfort of governments that appear not to be troubled by the fact that they disenfranchise a significant segment of the population.
Marjaleena Repo has been a political organizer with experience as a campaign manager in two federal elections and in three political party leadership campaigns. She lives in Saskatoon. (firstname.lastname@example.org)