Of course voter disengagement is getting worse, and of course young voters feel like spectators on the democratic process. Have you looked at the quality of our political discourse? Forgive youth voters for feeling alienated. Likewise, stop blaming mature non-voters for their apparent indifference. Our political process has refined techniques for communication with an informed minority. These refinements have the unintended effect of excluding many others.
There are enough of these “others” to overturn any election outcome in recent memory. Almost half (49%) of eligible Toronto voters sat on their hands on municipal election day in the winter of 2010. A few months later, we nearly set a national record for non-participation (39%) in the federal election, and later in 2011, slightly more than half of voters (51%) chose not to cast a ballot for or against the minority Liberal government that resulted.
To provide a sense of proportion, the uncast votes outnumbered all the ballots cast for the winners of these three elections, and most if not all elections in Canada. If non-voters formed a political party, they would win every time. In a time when victory margins are narrowing and minority governments are more frequent, political strategists and pundits still focus on “getting the base out,” even when the base is eroding. Relative to the number of eligible but disengaged voters, a disproportionate share of effort and resources appear to be spent on retention rather than broadening of the base. A narrower base of engaged citizens, combined with widespread apathy among the rest, results in more intense partisanship, less constructive dialogue, and weaker mandates for the winners after the votes are counted.
In Toronto, at least, political candidates probably want keep an eye on Dave Meslin, “professional rabble rouser”, and his initiative to introduce a ranked ballot system for the next election. This enlightened idea hopes to clarify election results in the city that often tend to put a an over-all minority’s choice in government. A party or candidate can “win” with as low as 20% of the vote, as voters can only check off one choice. Vote-splitting invariable erodes the chances of similar-sounding platforms to stand out in the minds of ballot tickers. But, the solution in a democracy, of course, can’t be to discourage more candidates from participating in the next election–reducing our choices to some primary palette. Thus, voters should have the chance to rank the candidates at the polls–a much more thoughtful process. The majority’s second choice, or even third choice would at least be representative of a majority.
As we seek to improve our electoral process and political engagement from a huge number of non-active voters, it is necessary to clarify political messages.
Not to say that the unclear discourse now is a moral failing of politicians and political parties. Nobody wanted it to be this way. It’s just a case of arrested development.
In our daily lives, we communicate complex ideas more rapidly than ever, with debatable precision, but with ever greater rapidity nonetheless. Governments and political parties, to different degrees, have fallen behind.
We are capable of learning the differences between products by looking online at pictures that are labeled with a few numbers and even fewer words. Most Canadians are guided in their biggest investment decision by comparing mortgage rates on any of the handy calculators prominently positioned on real estate and banking websites. For people who grew up with the internet, and many middle aged people as well, it’s common practice to check their symptoms online when they’re ill, settle on a short list of probable diagnoses, and decide what course of action to take – BEFORE consulting a physician. Pharmaceutical companies bypass the entire medical establishment and market directly to patients in 30-second advertisements. It’s a new age.
• 27.4 million Canadians are online (that is 80% of the population!)
• 17.2 hours are spent on the internet a week
• 93% go online for product information
• 44% use online videos more than they did last year
• 25% would give up TV over their smartphone
• 64% have a profile on a social network
Again, no surprise. North America is head and shoulders above the rest of the world in the market penetration of internet services (77% of households vs. 67% in Australia/Oceana, and only 63% in Europe). It is the medium of first resort for everything that matters for everyone under the age of 60. It isn’t snail mail, newspapers, radio, or even television that carries the freight in the information age.
But when it comes to choosing between political parties and their platforms, there are no convenient points of comparison provided by the parties or distilled by the media from what the parties put out. The first layer of party websites are dominated by vague motherhood statements, long narratives about high purpose, and feel good photographs or videos, occasionally sprinkled with favourable news quotes and tweets intended to validate self-referential claims about the parties and their leaders.
As a general rule of thumb, half of all visitors leave every time they’re forced to click on the way to what they want. That’s because they’ve already invested their time and have met with disappointment. Rather than throw good time after bad, they back out and try other sources.
So if a political website carries no hard content on the home page, which is fairly common, the next level is reached by the eyeballs of only those with the means and the motive to persist; politicos, academics, journalists, and retirees. This is why seniors, who have all the time in the world, are an influential minority.
Of course politically engaged people will dispute this. They regard uninformed and disengaged citizens as lazy and inattentive. But by the second page of any visit to a typical party website, you’re immersed in content intended to rally committed supporters. You have to go another level down to get into the substance of party platforms; the white papers on policy issues and the costing of commitments.
By this point, the visitor has been asked to peel the onion of the party brand. Of the minority who think the onion looks appetizing, half have quit after the first layer and turned their watering eyes elsewhere. The half that continue are already used to the smell of onion. Half again are lost as the next layer is peeled away and the odour becomes more pungent, and so it goes until there are very few people left who know or care what lies at the centre of the onion. Of those who remain, most are lifelong onion lovers with a weak sense of smell and very strong stomachs. They’re the hard core supporters who run the riding associations and party at the conventions.
Reversing the analogy, almost everyone who buys an onion knows what’s inside. Very few people bite into an onion thinking they’ve bought a peach. The essence of the brand is familiar.
Not so with political parties nor their election platforms. You cannot make an informed choice without taking some initiative, and even then appearances can be deceiving. Toronto’s experience with Rob Ford’s reversals on drugs, gangs, and transit, is too easy an example. There is a long list of less notorious Trojan horse governments that deliver something quite unexpected once in office. Any time a government deviates from plans or policies for which they were elected, voters feel like they’ve been promised peaches and force-fed onions.
Voters and non-voters don’t blame themselves. They don’t vow to examine things more closely next time. They simply become more skeptical of the entire political process.
Here’s a test you can apply to see if I’m inflating the problem: Read any overview of a political party’s values and intentions and you’ll find little to disagree with. Take any statement, such as a promise to fight for working Canadians, and ask whether anyone would ever take the opposite view. “We fight against working Canadians,” sounds absurd. This illustrates how unhelpful these statements of principle are as points of differentiation between the parties.
The same goes for economic plans, which typically start out with a promise to employ more people and help businesses to prosper. Everyone says it in different words, but as a point of differentiation for an outsider, this is a waste of time. Which party pursues a plan of increasing unemployment and ruining the prospects of the corporate sector? There isn’t one, of course. For anyone, young or old, who hasn’t cracked the code of party rhetoric, there’s no value in statements that no one dares oppose.
All three Ontario provincial parties have made infrastructure investments a central part of their economic plans, but how does an inexperienced voter sift through these commonalities to discover differences? Try stating the opposite about our infrastructure deficit – “Investments in infrastructure are a waste of money,” and it defies all evidence and reason.
Too much of what a novice voter needs to know is buried in this kind of fluff. What party or politician could deny that we have a chronic infrastructure deficit to overcome, and that infrastructure spending is a useful form of economic stimulus? Simply pronouncing an obvious and inescapable truth actually distances voters from the differences that make voting meaningful. This avoids real fundamental debate about what one candidate would do over another.
There has been a communications revolution in the lives of ordinary citizens and the corporations that serve them. Unfortunately, institutions move at an evolutionary pace. Governments lack the competitive pressure that accelerates business innovation and strategy. Political parties, at the provincial or municipal levels at least, lack the resources and incentives to invest in radically new ways of doing things.
It’s only reasonable that time is needed to catch up. Nevertheless, the federal Auditor General is right when he says that the Canadian government is stuck in the “Netscape era.” Beyond the specific examples he cited, unskilled political use of digital media tools generally plagues our politics. Political parties may have kept pace slightly better than government institutions, but there remains an undeniable gap between what is accomplished and what is possible, and it is through that gap that the young, unengaged electorate falls.
A speech is still a speech, even if it’s posted on a website. Hollow rhetoric is still hollow, even if it’s transmitted in a tweet. A political advertisement is still just an advertisement, even if it’s available on Youtube. Changes in media have changed the method without substantially altering the message.
Public statements posted on a party website still tend to read like olden day stump speeches, shouted from an idling train at a rural whistle-stop. In fact there is a lot of spoken content reproduced verbatim on party websites. Adjective-laden statements of purpose and character, appealing to all and offensive to none, don’t get to the substance of what makes one set of policies or plans preferable to all the others.
The party that gets this right will augment their support base more effectively and economically than their competitors. Then the margin of victory won’t be decided by little bands of partisans scurrying back and forth between entrenched party positions.
It’s time to borrow the best communication techniques that have been developed outside of politics to communicate more meaningfully and credibly with disengaged citizens. Twenty-first century pedagogy, combined with intelligent design and branding methods, would produce very different looking messages than conventional speeches, white papers, and feel-good advertisements endured by voters now.
A lot of work needs to go into this transformation, but it should be immensely rewarding. Mathematically, given the huge number of eligible non-voters, it makes sense to focus less on the voters who might change than on the voters who have no voting history and no party allegiances.