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Sleeping On the Ballot Box

in Analysis/Featured/Politics by

Elections are one of our favourite things, and have been for as long as we can remember. From the excitement of following the “race” once the writ is dropped, to the thrill that comes from marking a ballot and shaping the future of your community, to the awesomeness of election night as you watch the results roll in: elections are entirely exciting and engrossing exhibitions of democracy. Then we get to do it again in four years’ time! It’s like the Olympics of civic engagement!

Alas, we are election nerds: we like gathering data, we like following trends, and—in a nutshell—we are strange.

Regardless of our personal preferences (and the obviously very fun parties we throw on election night), elections are incredibly important in a free society because they provide a number of key functions in a democracy.  They provide a mechanism by which citizens are able to select their governments, influence public policies, and determine how they wish to be represented. Elections also provide an opportunity for exchange between governments and citizens, as well as opportunities for political education, mobilization, and socialization.  Elections are one of the key ways in which citizens feel connected to politics and engaged with the political system.

That’s why we’re so concerned about the 2019 Newfoundland and Labrador general election.

Elections Matter

It’s important to remember that, for the most part, citizens don’t pay much attention to politics. We have jobs to do, we have families to take care of, we have hobbies to enjoy, and we have hockey to watch (or Game of Thrones or Marie Kondo or the Avengers or whatever—you get the idea). There are tons of things that we need and want to pay attention to in our lives. For most of us, politics isn’t really one of them.

We elect politicians to do the job of politics for us: to gather information, to call upon experts, to weigh all the options, then to make the tough decisions so that we don’t have to, so that we can focus on the other things we care about. The idea, then, is that during an election campaign (if the system is functioning as it should) the excitement makes us pay more attention. We actually listen to candidates, we let them knock on our doors, tell us what’s important to them, and we let them try to persuade us of why we should give them our votes.

Elections are an amazing learning opportunity for citizens: to learn about candidates, parties, issues, and platforms, as well as the attitudes of those around us, as the energy and excitement leads us to talk more about politics with family, friends, coworkers, neighbours, and folks at the grocery store. Elections allow us to learn about the importance of democracy, of voting, of engaging in politics, and of working with others to determine the best way forward for our community.

The thing is that this doesn’t always work as well as it could (or should). People don’t always turn out to vote, they don’t watch debates, just like loads of folks don’t run for politics, don’t volunteer for parties, don’t donate money, and don’t think too much about politics in general, even during the highly charged atmosphere of an election campaign.

Why Don’t People Vote?

There are a number of ways that scholars have explained why it is that voters do (and do not) vote. Some suggest that people turnout to vote because of social networks and social pressures. People feel a moral obligation or civic duty to vote, and this is a cultural thing. Over time and in many parts of the world, voter turnout has gone down, and some suggest that this turnout decline is associated with a general weakening of community ties.

Others suggest that folks turn out to vote—and participate in politics more generally—because of characteristics they have as individuals rather than civic duty and community values. The more interested a person is in politics, the more likely they are to participate in general. This political interest develops early in the life of a voter, and voters develop habits: younger voters who are interested in elections become habitual voters, while uninterested youth do not. Research also suggests that turnout can increase when the stakes in the election are larger, because citizens are more interested in the campaign. According to this research, when elections are competitive, and when folks think there is something at stake, turnout will increase. Moreover, young voters who are socialized into voting at a time when elections are exciting are more likely to vote—and so likely to remain lifelong voters, way into old age.

Others suggest that political participation is all about mobilization: political elites (parties and candidates) get folks into the mix as they encourage people to get involved, to vote, to work for a campaign, and to donate money. This mobilization model is interesting because, more often than not, it means that only certain types of people are being approached and engaged in the election, and this can perpetuate inequality in participation. One key study from the US suggests that the efforts of political elites to mobilize “the organized, the employed, the elite, and the advantaged into politics exacerbate rather than reduce class biases in political participation.”

This is especially problematic when we think of the fourth and final explanation of political participation: resources. Scholars have found that availability of resources reduces the costs associated with participation, so the more resources a person has—money, time, expertise, education, social networks—the more likely they are to participate. This means that those individuals most likely to participate in the election process are the most privileged: they are working, have higher incomes, and they tend to be highly educated, white, and male.

As we have been teaching our students for years, all of these factors tend to come together in a little storm of campaign fury.  Participation and engagement with politics is more likely when:

  • The race is closer;
  • The stakes are higher;
  • Individual levels of political interest increase;
  • People have more “resources”; and,
  • More people are being mobilized.

This means that competitiveness plays a major role in determining who is paying attention to politics, who gets tapped to be involved, and whether or not people actually turn out to vote at all.

Irresponsible Government

What does this mean for Election 2019? We suspect that the current electoral landscape is one in which folks are more likely to zone out rather than tune in.

Past patterns in #nlpoli

If we look at voter turnout and party fortunes in Newfoundland and Labrador over the last 45 years, we see a general decline in voter turnout. In the 2015 election, province-wide turnout levels hit a record low of 55.3%. As we can also see, in this same time frame, competitiveness has been at an all-time low in the province. The 2003, 2007, and 2011 elections saw massive wins posted by the Progressive Conservative party, and in 2015 we saw a landslide Liberal victory. If we recall the last election (just three and a half years ago), there was really no doubt in anybody’s mind about who was going to win, despite the lack of dominant issues or realistic policy platforms in that campaign (so many unrealistic and broken promises, remember?). Why bother to vote if the result is a foregone conclusion?

This means, though, that for the last 15 years, our youngest voters—who are now between the ages of 18 and 29—have been socialized into a world where electoral politics is boring; where citizens have little role to play, because parties aren’t informing us about issues, solutions, or even priorities; and, where many people believe that turning out to vote in the election isn’t important because parties are all opportunistic, all the same, and are all messing up the province.

This #nlpoli election was called immediately after the government introduced a provincial budget, right before the Easter break, at a time when their competitors did not have candidates in place.  (Nomination day in this election was two days sooner than it was in 2015, as a result of an amendment to the Elections Act which came into force in October 2017.)  This decision has important implications for the democratic health of the province.  At a time when politics is complex, when our issues are not easy to solve, we as citizens need more information than ever.  

We need parties to break down the complexities of public policies, to take a stand, and to provide us with information about their solutions to our society’s problems. Solving the healthcare crisis, particularly in mental health and access to services; solving the economic problems confronting our province, like the fall-out from Muskrat Falls, and understanding the impact of climate change and how we can protect our future—all of these are tough jobs, and individual voters are not in a position to have all of the answers to these questions.  This is what government is for, and political parties are there to help us sort out our collective thoughts and opinions.

Yet if a government is willing to introduce a budget on the eve of an obviously pre-planned election call, it’s then basically a fake budget. The governing party uses taxpayer dollars to produce their election platform, and does so before any of the other parties have a chance to get themselves organized. This is not a path democratic theorists would endorse because it prevents opposition parties from being able to organize and keep them accountable.

Elections are supposed to provide an opportunity for voters to hold governments responsible. Elections legitimate their activities. This doesn’t work well if the government actively prevents realistic alternatives from forming, and it doesn’t work well if turnout declines because people see the governing party as opportunistic and the opposition parties as unrealistic and underprepared.

It’s an election, and there is a race. But democracy is the loser.

Amanda Bittner is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Memorial specializing in elections, voting, and public opinion. Griffyn Chezenko is an MA student in the Department of Political Science, specializing in Canadian parties and elections. You can find them on twitter @amandabittner and @griffynchezenko.

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