When Rodney MacDonald calls the election that every political watcher expects him to call sometime in the next few months, the economy is sure to be a major issue. That's a given, considering the world's financial meltdown and the shockwaves being felt across the spectrum from individual workers to entire industries. But the premier of Nova Scotia can't do much about global money woes. A better election issue is the election itself, and whether we can figure out how to fix the problems the democratic process is facing. After all, this is where Canadian democracy was born, an achievement the province marked last year with Democracy 250, the organization trumpeting democracy's two-and-a-half-century birthday. The upcoming election will be the first vote of Nova Scotia's next 250 years. We should try to getit right.
The trouble, as politicians see it, is we citizens are putting democracy in crisis by shirking our duty to vote. Since 1990, voter turnout has been tanking across the country, with last fall's federal election hitting a record low of 58.8 percent. But worse than the general slide is the oft-repeated story inside the numbers that old people vote and young people don't. "Not only are young people participating less than their elders, their willingness to participate appears to be declining over time," says a report from Elections Canada, the government body whose website includes crossword puzzles and "SElections trivia" in its youth-oriented "Games Corner."
Nova Scotia's politicians are so concerned about the voting situation, that in late 2006 they formed a committee. The Select Committee on Participation in the Democratic Process is mandated "to consider measures designed to increase the percentage of Nova Scotians voting in an election." Its deadline to file a report was June 30, 2007. At the committee's first meeting, in October 2007, chair Michel Samson said "one of the particular issues regarding voting, I think it's all agreed, is that the numbers for anyone 25 and under are particularly dismal."
The committee also realized that doing a serious job of a serious matter would require serious time---like a year---so a new deadline of September 1, 2008 was chosen for the report. That date has come and gone, and although the report is currently being written, Samson could not be reached to say if it will be ready before the next election, or to discuss what recommendations it will make.
In testimony before the committee, John Hamm, the former premier who co-chaired Democracy 250, explained what he found out about young voters. "Like most Nova Scotians, I was shocked to learn that 75 percent of youth under 25 didn't vote." The main reason, he discovered through visits to schools and other rap sessions, is that students aren't being taught enough about the democratic process in grade school. "In fairness to the students, something is wrong and needs tobe fixed."
I believe that children are the future, too, but it's disingenuous for Hamm to pin low voter turnout on the education system. To be eligible to vote in Nova Scotia, a person must have lived here during the six months before the election; university students arriving at the start of September could only vote in elections in March or April, then they go home for the summer. Of the 21 elections held since 1933, just two have been in March or April.
A former staffer for one of Hamm's ministers recently told me that it is not an accident---the incumbent politicians are scared of students' radical sensibilities, so they time elections to exclude them. Scheduling isn't the only factor in declining turnout, of course. Modern cynicism, government ineptitude, the internet's ability to let people think globally and act globally...these and more are culprits. But of all the lessons in discouragement, shutting out university students is the easiest one for a premier to dole out. Don't you agree, premier MacDonald?
Why don't you vote? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.