I have been asked repeatedly since Monday why I think the turnout was so abysmally low. By-elections traditionally have low turnouts, but this is a new low even for us.I think there are a variety of factors, including election fatigue as the last three years have seemed to be one long political campaign in this region that has seen a provincial election, two municipal by-elections, a general municipal election and a federal by-election in that time. It seems the signs for one campaign barely come down before the signs for another are erected, and I think it has contributed to our malaise about the entire thing.
I think too that there were no burning issues in this by-election, nothing into which any of the electorate or even the candidates wished to sink their teeth. On the rare occasions a candidate dared to issue a press release regarding a stance on some issue they were soundly thumped for having the audacity to take a stance at all, suggesting they were wiser to simply stay silent than speak at all.I think it is no accident the top finishers in the results were those who were known to be out door knocking, as this was a ground war campaign and those doorstep conversations showed their value in the end. One cannot run a campaign on Facebook, especially when there aren’t even any topics to generate any sort of conversation or discussion and every post simply disappears to be buried by funny cat memes and videos of baby goats.
Even those who tried to encourage the electorate to come out to vote saw a backlash, which cannot have helped the turnout. When the RMWB embarked on a small Twitter campaign to encourage people to vote by identifying topics that fall under municipal scope they had their knuckles rapped in a letter to the editor that suggested they were trying to influence the outcome of the election (a serious allegation that was accompanied by no evidence but that created a certain degree of kerfuffle regardless of its lack of substance).And then there were people like me, who judiciously refrained from commenting publicly on our choice for candidate. I was asked why I was so quiet, and to be honest it was an experiment as when I comment on politics of any level I find there are those who suggest I should not express a personal opinion given my professional role. This inability to differentiate between one’s person and one’s profession troubles me deeply, as it implies that almost anyone with employment should not be allowed to express a personal opinion for fear of engendering some conflict of interest, but in this instance I decided to stay mute to see what would happen. I was not surprised when friends alerted me that my name was being discussed on a local Facebook group to which I do not belong and do not frequent, and the topic was whether or not people like me should be “allowed” to express personal political opinions during elections such as the by-election given our professional roles – because this, it seems, is what democracy has become, discussions of who is “allowed” to express personal opinions and who is not, neglecting to remember that freedom of expression is a right for which all those who believe in democracy have fought.
After contacting some local schools I have learned that many hold mock elections in their classes mirroring the elections going on in our communities. The students research the candidates, they engage in discussions and conversations and then they vote and see how their results stack up against those of the voting public – and I can guarantee their turnout and their engagement is higher than a measly 5.6%. I am on the verge of suggesting we turn the electoral process over to students in fact, as they seem to have more interest in it than their adult counterparts do and perhaps it would be for the best as this is their future we are talking about, anyhow – or, as the Intrepid Junior Blogger puts it: “Just get out of our way and let my generation run things already, because you people are screwing it up.”And so here we are. We have achieved a new low in the democratic process in Fort McMurray, and to be honest I am not sure if anything can ever be done to change it. We need to investigate the concept of online voting, to be certain, and making it as easy as possible for voters to engage – but even then I think we are dealing with something that runs far deeper than a simple fix. I am feeling quite pessimistic about it because I think we have lost a great deal of our reverence for the concept of democracy, for freedom of expression and for understanding that our right to vote is not something we should ever take lightly. I am not disappointed in the results of the election as I believe we have elected a strong individual to council, but am I disappointed that only 5.6% of us thought it was necessary to cast a ballot at all? Indeed I am. Monday we held an election, and almost nobody came. It is a low point in the history of democracy in our region, and one we should not be quick to forget as we move into our future – a future that it seems only 5.6% of us care about.