Friday, April 17, 2009

On election day, will you be a happy sheep?

Barely back from a 2,800-mile road trip, and I was greeted by the first election signs.
And my heart sank.
That’s bad. We should look forward to a chance to choose our representatives. Journalists should be eager to write about the campaign.
But I was discouraged. Partly, it was because of my travels down to California, mostly through small towns. Things are bad in most of those communities — homes lost, industries and stores closing and social infrastructure crumbling. And I was struck again by the friendly, helpful, open nature of most Americans, and how they seem unable to elect governments that reflect those qualities.
Partly because this election already looks to be fearful, rather than hopeful. Many undecided voters seem focused on deciding which party is less likely to make big mistakes in government. There’s not a lot of interest in big ideas for a better B.C.
But you can, and should, rise above all that. Elections matter. There are differences between the parties that will affect your life over the next four years, and your children’s lives for decades. You can’t claim to care about community or family or the future and not vote.
In 2005, slightly more than three million British Columbians were eligible to vote. Yet 1.3 million didn’t. For most, there was no good reason.
Extreme ideologues of the right, left or whatever will claim the parties are all the same. That’s simply false.
Some people claim their votes don’t matter. But at least seven races were decided in 2005 by margins narrow enough that even a modestly increased turnout might have changed the outcome — and perhaps resulted in a different government.
And some non-voters don’t feel well-enough informed and are willing to leave the choice up to others. But the best decisions are made by diverse groups. (James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds is brilliant on the subject.) If one group is not represented at the polls, neither is their judgment based on experience and lessons learned.
Becoming informed isn’t difficult. The media will report on local and provincial campaigns.
There are other great resources. The party websites —, and — let you review their positions.
Most media organizations, including online publications such as, have election areas within their websites with more information, columns and blogs.
And sites like the Election Prediction Project, at, offer online discussions of the issues and outlook for each riding.
That’s important. Sometimes, it makes sense to focus on the candidates, not the parties. A great person, committed to a community, can be a valuable addition to the legislature on either side of the house.
The task of deciding how to vote can be simplified. Many people don’t need to analyze the entire platforms. If you’re an unemployed coastal forest worker, look at policies on the industry, economic development and retraining. If you are aging, consider voting based on policies on health care and support for seniors.
And get a sense of whether the promises are credible and affordable.
All parties work to identify supporters and mount a big election day effort to ensure they actually vote. Often, that effort determines the outcome in ridings.
That effort is also a reminder of how much your vote could matter.
It’s often a messy and uncertain, this democracy business. Each election day remains a test. Are we a people who take our best shot at electing a government that will serve our interests?
Or are we sheep, willing to be led wherever others decide?
Footnote: The other big reason to vote this time is the referendum on fixing our broken electoral system. British Columbians have a chance to say yes to a single-transferable-vote system that will be more representative and encourage MLAs to pay attention their constituents, not the party.