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September 5, 2011

Oct 6: Who can reverse declining voter turnout?

How would you like to be handed a crisp $10 bill right after you voted in next month's Ontario election? How about getting a doughnut or even a lottery ticket?

As crazy as they may seem, these are some of the gimmicks being proposed these days to entice voters to the polls — around the world as well as in Ontario.

With the provincial election exactly five weeks away, the perennial cry is rising once again: “Oh dear, what will we do about falling voter turnout rates?”

A better question is: Whose job is it really to get more of us out to vote?

On Oct. 6, barely 50 per cent of eligible voters will bother to cast a ballot. Cynics will sneer that it’s their right not to vote, that non-voting is a rational, legitimate expression of disgust for the current parties and leaders.

For the rest of us, though, the steady erosion of voter turnout in all elections is worrying. That’s because most of us see voting as an integral part of our civic duty to take some ownership of our community, province and country.

The turnout for the 2007 provincial election set an all-time low, with only 52.6 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot.

By comparison, turnout in May’s federal election was 61.4 per cent.

Endless excuses are cited for the decline, including voter fatigue, uninspiring candidates, nasty ad campaigns that turn off voters, hatred for all politicians and simply being too busy to vote.

In fact, all of the players — Elections Ontario, the political parties, civic engagement groups and the media — have a role to play in improving voter turnout.

Greg Essensa, Ontario’s chief electoral officer, has said that “it really is a shared responsibility.”

Elections Ontario, which organizes provincial elections, needs to take every reasonable step to make it easier to vote, and Essensa said this year there will be more days to vote by mail or in person at advance polls.

Over the years, though, successive governments have experimented with extending the hours and number of days for advanced voting, adding more polling stations and increasing the hours to vote on the actual election day.

All are worthy, but haven’t had much impact.

In the coming years, Elections Ontario needs to move faster on Internet voting, maybe holding elections on weekends and simpler voter registration.

Raising voter awareness is also the job of civic organizations, advocacy groups and individuals. For example, the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think-tank, created a video for the federal election aimed at young voters. Many bloggers love to mock such groups and heaps of celebrities who produce online videos urging people to vote. But these projects should be cheered — not jeered.

The media also has a role to play by avoiding becoming captive solely of polls, attack ads and character assassinations. Constantly focusing on negatives and “the horse race” at the expense of the issues cheapens the media coverage and further erodes voter interest in the questions that really matter.

Ultimately, the job of boosting voter turnout rests largely with the political parties. People who don’t vote often say it’s because the parties didn’t give them enough of a reason to head to the polls. Also, their no-holds-barred campaigns, highlighted by personal attacks and negative ads, have turned many voters off.

What they need to do is run inspiring campaigns stressing positives and hope.

It’s what Jack Layton did in the federal race when voters catapulted his New Democrats into second place. Layton understood that it wasn’t necessarily true that voters who had previously failed to take part in elections have abandoned politics and democracy.

Layton realized that voters who are impressed with what you are offering will come out in droves to support you.

Now, if only that lesson could get through to the political leaders in Ontario.

Bob Hepburn writes for Record news services.

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