The “non-vote vote”

In one of his recent “rants”, comedian Rick Mercer encouraged Canadian youth to “do what young people all over the world are dying to do: vote.”

Spurred (or shamed) to action, young people across the country have responded by forming Vote Mobs: groups of youth that take to the streets to perform “spontaneous” acts of awareness-raising, like singing the national anthem at the mall.

The movement is officially “non-partisan”, but let’s be serious. The whole point is to VOTE FOR CHANGE. And nothing threatens the status quo more than the untapped youth vote.

It’s a common complaint that those in power ignore the concerns of young people: youth feel alienated, so they refrain from voting (63% of 18-24 year olds didn’t vote in the last election), and ultimately end up disenfranchised. Big surprise.

But the solution isn’t as clear cut as Mercer and the Vote Mobs make it out to be. After all, it’s pretty easy to feel like your vote doesn’t count WHEN IT DOESN’T.

Consider for example the almost one million Canadians whose ballots were essentially thrown in the garbage (or the recycling bin) after they voted Green in the last election. The NDP, with twice as many votes as The Bloc Quebecois, got half as many seats. As Andrew Coyne put it recently in Maclean’s, “one BQ vote was worth two NDP votes.”

It’s a pretty safe bet that the youth vote lands disproportionately on the centre-left of the political spectrum, so given these numbers, we can assume that many young people voted and were still disenfranchised.

What’s more, a million fewer votes were cast in 2008 than in 2006, suggesting that it’s not just young people feeling either that they have no choice or else that their choice doesn’t matter. Again, no surprise, since Canada’s “first past the post” electoral system is winner take all: everyone else on the ballot goes home empty handed, meaning everyone who voted for the losers might as well have stayed home. Here’s the thing: most of us voted for the losers. Only a third of voters voted for the Conservatives (and only half of eligible voters even turned up). In other words, two-thirds of voters voted for the losers (and half of the electorate stayed home altogether). One-third of half took the prize.

The system rewards regional parties whose support tends to concentrate around electoral districts (Bloc, Conservatives), and punishes parties with a broad vision for the country — and the world — whose votes are spread out across the country (NDP, Green), resulting in a disproportionate votes-to-seats ratio. Here’s a graphical representation of the difference between popular vote and seats won.

Coyne again:

The result is a highly distorted picture of the country. To look at Parliament, you would think there were no Liberals in Alberta, no Conservatives in Toronto—and that federalists were the minority in Quebec. Add to this the phenomenon of vote-splitting, which further limits voter choices: rather than simply vote for the party they like, they are forever being told they must vote against the party they dislike.

Alternatively, the ‘single transferrable vote’ system would, as Coyne describes it, allow voters to rank their choices. Their second and third choices would get redistributed, and seats won would be more proportional to votes received.

We’ve heard about the senior vote, the ethnic vote, the rural vote, the mom vote, etc., and now, thanks to Mercer, we’re hearing about the youth vote. But the youth vote is truly the “non-voter vote”, not because youth are stupid, lazy or apathetic. Though they are all those things, sometimes, too, it’s also that youth rightly perceive the system to be flawed; indeed, the system fails them. And it will continue to do so until they vote en masse, a bloc jeunesse.

So the best way to disrupt the status quo is not by nudging votes from one side of the spectrum toward the other; it’s by getting out the “non-vote vote”, which is what the Vote Mobs will do if they’re successful. Obama knew this in 2009, when he moved people, mainly young people and black people, who hadn’t voted in the previous election — or any election —  to come out and make history (i.e., not repeat history).

Here’s my idea: instead of activating the youth vote with appeals to patriotism (unlikely to move the cynical and apathetic anyway), let’s try a little reverse psychology. Every young person who doesn’t intend to vote should change their Facebook profile pic to something like “Me no vote.”

Youth who intend to vote can leave their Fb profile alone, or I guess maybe change it to something like “Me Vote!” Seeing the no-vote logos accumulating in their Newsfeed, young people would all at once get a sense of what 2 million votes looks like. For starters, it equals approximately the number of votes in 2008 separating the Conservatives from the Liberals; the NDP from the Greens; or the Bloc from the Marijuana Party! (Newsflash: NO ONE’S vote “matters” by itself, unless you live in a dictatorship. Let’s try to avoid that, OK?)

Social media campaigns and publicity stunts like VoteMob might help, especially if other campaigns like those for online voting are successful. All this and more is necessary before electoral reform can become a serious topic of debate, let alone a reality. But if and once electoral reform happens, the House of Commons might begin to reflect the diversity of Canadian political sentiment. And all voters, not just youth, will feel less alienated, ignored, and ultimately disenfranchised. Which in turn will make Canadian voters less apathetic, ignorant, and ultimately disengaged from politics.

But of course… in order for it to unfold this way, it must first happen in reverse.

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About CBVoteMob in The Cape Breton Post