Politics these days


While pollsters try to adjust for the demographics of voting, Ilona Dougherty defends the young non-voter.

You’ve probably heard the rote statistic about how only 37 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 cast a ballot in the 2008 federal election, compared with 68 per cent of those over 65. But here’s something you may not have heard: during that same election, the majority of youth were not contacted in any way by a candidate or political party. What about the 65-plus crowd? Well, 69 per cent of them were contacted directly, by my calculations, using the Canadian Opinion Research Archive. When young Canadians aren’t being consistently asked to participate, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t turn out for elections.

Robert Asselin frets on a number of fronts.

By presenting 120-second reports that focus mostly on controversies, the media is for the most part exacerbating the negative feelings people have towards the political class. Newsrooms have become production lines. Twenty-four hour news comes with ridiculous deadlines for journalists. There are a lot of punchy headlines, but less and less rigorous analysis.

Because politics has become for too many a childish partisan game – and because it is being reported as such – less people are tuning in. To be sure, watching the spectacle of John Baird –- the diplomat-in-chief playing the role of pit-bull-in-chief –answering questions in the Commons is enough to discredit all politicians. When my graduate students watch Question Period, they are all turned off. They regard it as a bad joke.

But Colby Cosh dissents from the turnout crisis.

The true place of the Turnout Nerd in the media ecosystem is to fill space—to give us something to talk and worry and argue about in the absence of authentic information about what stirrings and yearnings lie behind the raw vote totals. But the Nerd, with his worrywart ways focused on one principle of political health, may be having the same destructive effects on our political life as any other fundamentalist or monomaniac. These people are the orthorexics of politics. Ask Kenneth Arrow: the creation of a political system is always a balancing act between virtues, a compromise, a kludge. Greater political “engagement” and “involvement” are vague virtues at best; and more “excitement” is, if you ask me, an indubitable positive vice.


Politics these days

  1. “during that same election, the majority of youth were not contacted in any way by a candidate or political party”
    Most 18-24 year olds are still living at home these days, so mommy or daddy would be answering the phone or the door.

    • Unlike.

    • Wow. You’re kidding right? 

      Let me check the calendar here….yep, just as I suspected. It’s not 1977.

  2. Most young people weren’t ‘contacted’ because they use cell phones. And they move about far more.

    I have to use a land line for a web connection since I live in the country…..and I would have been ‘contacted’ a lot, except I didn’t answer the phone. 

    People who watch TV also saw endless annoying ads…which is why God invented the mute button. LOL

    Having a lot of non-voters doesn’t affect ‘democracy’….people are still free to do what they want. They aren’t being refused a vote after all.

    However I think the lack of interest in doing so is because of the way the country runs….nothing ever changes. So replacing party X with party Y or Z doesn’t change anything either. Mostly they go over old ground, and get into scraps about ideology, which no one but them is interested in.

    Elected govts to do housekeeping functions and engage in ‘mud wrassles’ are all we have lett….and most people….even the ones that vote ….aren’t excited by that.

    People are taking more direct action in other ways….notably NGOs, but there are other means available as well.

    • Newsflash!  Pollsters call cell phones. It’s amazing how many people still aren’t aware of this easily verifiable fact.

      • Newsflash…no they don’t.

        Everyone in my family has a cellphone….and none of them were contacted that way.

        Nor were any of their friends and business associates.

        • I’ve been polled on my cellphone, and so have lots of other people I know.

          • Well that makes 2 of you.

            Be more careful who you give your number out to.

          • I got my cell les than a month ago. Most of my friends and colleagues don’t even have the number yet. However, I’ve already been polled twice, and telemarketed more times than I care to count…

          • @Ollie77:disqus 

            Then your number is listed somewhere it shouldn’t be.

          • Actually, I’ve been polled before on my cell phone as well. Leading up to the 2008 election I was polled at least twice a week.

            The “pollsters don’t call cell phones” argument is outdated and false. Nanos started it in 2005 and ended up with the most accurate polling. Soon after, all of them did it.That said, most cell phone plans have call display, and many people don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. 

          • @Alowishes2:disqus 

            I repeat…how did Nanos get your number?

          • You’re combating anecdotal evidence with……….anecdotal evidence?  ;-)

          • Yes, but I’m using anecdotal evidence to confirm something rather than point to the absence of something.  Of course, you knew that already. ;-)

          • Well actually, I hadn’t really thought it through so much….but that is a difference, for sure.

            Just don’t make it a habit – sets a bad example for the rest of us!

          • @PhilCP:disqus 

            For example:

            Emily:   I’ve never seen a swan with black feathers.  Therefore, swans with black feathers don’t exist.

            CR: I’m looking at a swan with black feathers right now!  

            Phil: Both observations are examples of “anecdotal evidence”.  Therefore, we cannot know whether black swans exist.

            Assuming Emily and I are both telling the truth, do you spot the flaw in your argument?

          • @Crit_Reasoning:disqus

            Easy now, easy…I recognized my logical fault the first time you pointed it out, therefore “but that is a difference, for sure.”

            The last line needed those tags.

          • @PhilCP:disqus
            No need for the tags! I was just in a truculent mood. :)

  3. Interesting. We’re 65+, and heard nothing from any candidate. 

    Not having been personally contacted seems to me like a weak excuse for not voting.

    • You’re being a tad literal there Scott. The direct contact was a measure of how much campaign effort is expended on reaching the demographic. Another measure might be the presence or absence of certain issues (i.e. pensions vs. student loans) in campaign materials.

      We can argue about whether it’s only prudent use of campaign resources given the odds of getting youth votes, but surely it must have some impact that one group is being wooed and the other is mostly ignored.

      The point is that very little effort is directed at the 14 to 24 segment.

      • No, the point is that not being contacted is a cheap excuse for not voting.

    • Fair enough, however the 65+ age group is generally targeted well beyond personal contact. Entire sections of political platforms are geared to sway the senior vote, with seniors issues often being front and center. Very little platform space is given to issues that apply to 18 to 24 year-olds. Health care is good example… it’s an obvious priority to most seniors. Most people in their early 20’s still think they are invincible.

  4. Clearly some prefer to think that people have tuned out merely because they have no objection to the existing or potential governing parties. I can certainly understand why this viewpoint would lead you to consider this a non-issue.

    However, I think the ever dropping turnout rates are evidence of a growing apathy and/or cynicism about the entire political system itself, ie that people don’t think voting matters, because it literally doesn’t make any difference.

    Now certainly a little apathy isn’t unusual or problematic in any given system, but when more people opt out than opt in, I start to wonder whether you’re watching the beginnings of a bigger problem down the road.

    So why not be proactive? Why not look to examples around the world of democracies that are vital and active and adopt those things that appear to work to engage the public?

    Because when all is said and done, it seems to me that a democracy that no one wants to participate in, is one in which no one has any faith, and I’m not sure how that contributes to a healthy society over all.

  5. I’m with Cosh.  Turnout nerds “may be having the same destructive effects on our political life as any other fundamentalist or monomaniac”.

    I don’t think there’s any virtue in trying to get uninformed, disinterested people to vote in spite of their ignorance and apathy.  Many nonvoters currently in the 18-24 segment will start to vote as they get older and become more aware of the world around them.  If they’re still too apathetic to vote at age 30, then it’s probably a good thing that they’re avoiding the ballot box. 

    • I agree.  It would be nice if more people voted, from a civics-class perspective, but the turnout nerds are making way too much of the problem.  I’ve been watching that Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition, and one of the things that comes out is that prohibition advocates started to claim that prohibition was going to cure virtually every social ill out there.  I feel the same way about turnout nerds, who seem to think that high voter turnout is going to have all of these fantasically salutary effects, and that low voter turnout is like some insidious disease — some poster on another thread was claiming that if we don’t fix this problem, the Nazis will take over.

      People also use voter turnout as a partisan stick to beat their opponents with, in a very selective way.  Harper is accused by Liberals of deliberately “suppressing the vote”, yet the  voter turnout in the Ontario election was considerably lower than the last federal election and I don’t hear any Liberals accusing McGuinty of deliberately suppressing the vote.  The turnout in the last mayoral election in the City of Vancouver was 30%, yet you don’t hear a lot of people in Vancouver claiming that they’re living under an illegitimate dictatorship.

      • Yup. Complaining about so-called “vote suppression” is the last refuge of a partisan scoundrel.  Contrary to the self-serving Liberal mythology, the millions of voters who abandoned the LPC since 2006 weren’t sitting on their hands at home on election day.  The evidence shows that they transferred their votes to one of the other parties.  That’s not “suppression”, that’s democracy at work.

        Meanwhile, the drop in turnout is part of a well-documented 20-year tend, so it’s annoying to hear people blaming the polticians du jour instead of looking at the bigger picture.

        • It’s also present in nearly every established and stable democracy around the world.

    • Yes, yes, it’s well known that the youth don’t vote..

      ..except when they do.

      The truth is, many non-voters in the 18-24 age bracket will start to vote as soon as they get a politician that pays attention to them. As it turns out, that usually doesn’t happen until they’re in their 30s.

      • I like Nenshi, I’ve met him, I’m friends with people who worked on his campaign, I voted for him, and I’m well aware of his success in social media.  I’m still not convinced that the 18-24 age bracket turned out in droves to vote for him, because the anecdotal evidence conflicts with my personal observations of those who voted.

        • …because the anecdotal evidence…

          Wednesday – Thursday – Friday!!! :-)

          • One’s personal experiences tend to inform one’s personal opinions, even though they are by definition anecdotal. :-)

        • “the anecdotal evidence conflicts with my personal observations of ..” uh.. what?

          So you’re saying you don’t trust the anecdotal evidence because of the anecdotal evidence.


    • If there is no virtue in trying to get uninformed, disinterested people to vote in spite of their ignorance and apathy, might there be virtue in trying to get the exact same type of people who currently are voting to stop voting?

      If so, I have the perfect plan to achieve that objective.

      And seriously, you really have no concerns at all that so many citizens don’t vote? Sure, for some folks there is no direct or immediate reason to vote, and I’m prepared to give them a pass. But there must be some folks who are just sick of the goings on – I think those folks deserve some attention.

      • If they’re currently voting, then by definition they’re not disinterested. To quote the venerable Colby Cosh: “the turnout itself is a perfect revealed-preference measure of how much people actually care.”

        As for the folks who are interested and informed but choose not to vote because they’re sick of the goings on: they can spoil their ballot, vote Green, write letters, protest, voice their opinions, etc.  I agree that these folks deserve attention, but it’s up to them to make themselves heard! We can’t presume to speak for them.

        • Turning up to vote strikes me as a pretty low threshold to use as a gauge of interest, and turning up to vote doesn’t address the ‘informed’ criteria at all.

          And to clarify, are you suggesting that all those folks who currently don’t vote at all are not making themselves heard, so we can justifiably ignore them? Furthermore, if those exact same folks would just venture down to the ballot box and spoil their ballot, then they would be speaking out, and then the rest of us would be more obliged to act?

          Are you sure you would be so sanguine about all of this stuff if your own political inclinations were disadvantaged rather than being satiated?

          And wait just one minute here….I voted Green in May…..

          • Turning up to vote strikes me as a pretty low threshold to use as a gauge of interest

            In any functioning democracy, turning up to vote is the only gauge of interest that matters.  That’s how democracy works.  Unless you’re proposing that voters should pass some sort of test before they’re allowed to exercise their fundamental right to vote, to ensure that they’re sufficiently “interested” and “informed”?

            I am indeed saying that from a democratic perspective, we can justifiably ignore the opinions of those who can’t be bothered to vote.  I’m also saying that people who intentionally spoil their ballot deserve MUCH more attention (with regards to their political opinion) than people who don’t vote at all.

            I would be just as sanguine about voter turnout if my political preferences weren’t being satiated.  My democratic principles are separate from my political inclinations.   Also, I think it’s common for people whose poltical inclinations are frustrated to assume that if only more people voted, those new voters would think the same way they do! ;-)

          • Regarding interest and informed and so on:

            Well….speaking of anecdotal evidence….several years ago I met with a sales rep, a fellow who had a technical school diploma. During the course of our conversation I mentioned that California’s population was (at that time) about 35 million, very similar to Canada. “No way,” he says, referring to Canada, “it’s only 3 million!” I checked to make sure he wasn’t talking about Alberta, or California or whatever, and gave him a few other opportunities to recant, but nothing.

            Which led me to propose this plan to co-workers and family (and suggest it to Sean about 2 years ago back on ID):
            – the ballot looks vaguely like the old Scantron forms that you used to get in grade school
            – the ballot has two sections
            – the bottom section is the same as the typical ballot (list of candidates – fill in the circle of your choice)
            – the top section has 10 multiple choice questions such as:
            >>>Canada’s population is a) less than 10 million, b) between 30 million and 40 million…..
            >>>the capital city of PEI is …..
            – after you complete your ballot it is run through a scanning machine
            – your vote is prorated based on the number of correct questions, so my vote might count for 0.7 whereas Sean’s or CR’s would likely be counted at 1.0, and, well, I don’t want to say whose ballot would not be counted at all….we can discuss that later.

            Regarding who to ignore and who to pay attention to:

            Bring on mandatory voting, if that’s what it will take to get you and like-minded folks to pay attention to today’s disengaged citizen.

            Regarding being so sanguine:

            Perhaps you are a better man than I….or perhaps we just have different principles…I’ll have to think about that. And just to clarify, personally I’m very uncertain that – in and of itself – simply increasing the number of voters would change much of anything. If we ‘force’ everyone to vote and ‘force’ everyone to pick a party/representative on that ballot I’d say that the results just become a crap shoot – you could just as easily predict a stronger mandate for the ‘current’ winner as predict a decisive victory for an also ran as predict no real change…just more total votes.

            And there is also the idea that “If only people had better information, they would vote the way I do…” Again, I’m not really sure how things would work out if we added a knowledge test to the ballot, but personally I would be very supportive of such a change. I really can’t see how the country would not benefit from having a more informed electorate.

  6. I’m generally of like-minds with Cosh on this issue. I will say, however, that on the front of connecting with younger voters, that the NDP seems to be taking some tentative steps. While I’m outside of the lamented demographic, my household seems to share their overall “communications and media” methods. We don’t have a subscription to cable or satellite, for example. We watch most of our television using the networks’ web sites (CTV and CBC, and CityTV, primarily) and neither the Liberal nor the PC ads were anywhere to be seen. We did see the NDP’s spots repeatedly. The three parties’ spots were shown frequently OTA.

    Similarly, they were quite happy to use most social media with a little more skill than the others. I didn’t change my own vote, but I was happy to see that at least one party was making attempts to go where the others either weren’t at all or not as well.

  7. With a massive baby boom demographic still clogging the top-end of the workforce, a global recession, and the value of post-secondary education itself in an inflationary nosedive — while its price nonetheless rises — it is most likely that a good number of 18 – 24 year-olds have returned home, unemployed, in spite of a decent effort along a path recommended by their parents; one which is now eroded, slow, congested, and obsolete.

  8. Regarding democracy: Apathy is a shame.  Yet, it signifies something perhaps more clearly, more democratically even, than does our official and evidently unpopular electoral mechanism.  When Democracy Represents a minority of participants, is it democracy, or is it a more palliative form of fascism?

    With the above in mind, and with change in mind, can we trust a government that accepts power granted by such an unrepresentative means?  Can we trust it to change what really is an undemocratic mechanism, conveniently disguised as its opposite?

    In Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” books were banned only after they were forgotten.

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