Monday, October 17, 2016

Donuts For Democracy - How to Increase Voter Turnout

Nova Scotia's municipal elections have come and gone and although there are many changes, one thing has stayed the same.  Voter turn out was very low.  In fact, it went from bad to abysmal. So, in an attempt to remedy this situation, the question that is circulating in the news today is, how can we increase voter turnout.  The answer to that question is obvious.  Donuts.  Everyone shows up for donuts. 

Yes, it's a silly answer, but that's because it's a silly question.  Why do we want to increase voter turnout?  If people feel disconnected from municipal politics; if they don't understand or care about the issues; if the most they know about their candidate is that they are nice or not nice, then is it good for democracy to simply increase voter turnout? If we could increase voter turnout by luring people to the polls with donuts or make voting mandatory,  could we all pat ourselves on the backs and say, Bravo, democracy is being well served?

Perhaps the better question is, why are most people disconnected from municipal politics.  And if people are informed, but are not voting, then maybe the question is why do they feel that there is no candidate to represent their reality. 

Municipal politics is, after all, the level of government that is closest to our everyday lives. Got a smelly sewage treatment plant?  That's a municipal issue.  Feel like you take your life in your hands every time you get on your bike or cross the street? That's a municipal issue  Angered by bulldozers knocking down heritage buildings?  Municipal issue.  Tired of the bus not arriving on time? Municipal issue.  Do you think it's ridiculous that your town will let you sell antiques from your home, but they won't let you sell art?  Yep, that, too is a municipal issue.  So, when people are not interested in municipal politics that is indicative of a real problem. To fix it we have to heal the disease, not the symptom. Voter turn out is the symptom.

Democracy was never meant to be a spectator sport. Democracy is meant to include the citizens.  But as citizens, we cast our votes on election day and then we walk away and watch from the outside as our politicians make decisions on our behalf.  We watch our politicians and applaud or boo because that is what spectators do.   We go back to our busy lives, tell ourselves how wonderful it is to live in a democracy and return in four years' time to, once again, excercise our democratic right to vote.  This has become the definition of being a good citizen.

The politicians, meanwhile, are not exactly welcoming the citizens into the fold and expanding the definition of democracy.  Well, citizens are tolerated as audience members, but not as part of the process. Wait, let me rephrase that.  In a status quo sort of way, citizens can participate in democracy.  They may request to make a presentation to council and public meetings are part of the required process in creating or amending a bylaw. But people are not stupid.  They understand the difference between meaningful and disingenuous engagement. "Thank you for your feedback, it will be taken under consideration."

It was my own experience with my own municipal government that has shaped my views of a broken democracy. Over two years ago, I brought my concerns regarding the town's interpretation of their Home Occupation bylaw to the Mayor and council. There was no room for me in the town's understanding of how the system works. What to do with  a citizen that is so impassioned to correct a wrong that she has spent half of every day, for two years,  researching Land Use and the Building Code, consulting with outside experts and reading studies and statistics?   Bring her in or keep her out? The town's response was keep her out.  Every ounce of ugliness that transpired was a direct result of this decision. 

But what if things had gone differently?  What if council, recognizing my passion to fix an error, had invited me in?  What if council invited everyone in that showed knowledge or a passion for a municipal issue. There is actually a model for this scenario.  It is called Citizen Planning. This concept was introduced to me by Bob Lehman, a two time fellow and former chair of the College of Fellows for the Canadian Institute of Planners. The idea is that the future of planning is changing and the role of the planner will also change from one of controlling ideas to one of gathering ideas from citizens and helping to bring these ideas to life.  You can read more about this concept HERE

The concept behind citizen planning translates directly to all of municipal politics.  Yes, ultimately, it  our elected representatives who vote on our behalf and that is a good thing.  But how they get to this point is the difference between a democracy that brings citizens in and a democracy that pushes citizens away. What we have right now is a democracy that pushes citizens away.

Exclusionary meeting times, committees that do not represent the diversity in the community, a lack of will to hold regular public forums to discuss large issues confronting the community, a lack of will to engage or communicate on social media.  These actions or lack of action push people away.  It is the responsibility of municipal government to include the citizens.

But it's a two way street.  If, as citizens, we hold on to the notion that we do not have a responsibility, yes, a responsibility, to engage in democracy and that once we elect our politicians our work as citizens is done, then we too,  are part of the problem.  Although I received more support than criticism for my efforts,  the criticism was loud and spoke to a way of thinking whose time has come and gone.  I was criticized for daring to challenge, I was called an armchair quarterback.  The belief was and still is that I did not know my place.  I knew my place, but it was a place that did not and does not exist within my municipal government's current understanding of democracy.

People engage with an issue when they care and when they believe their voices are respected and welcomed.  So, how about if instead of beating our heads against the wall trying to increase voter turnout, we instead figure out how to include citizens in the discussion of the municipal issues that they care about most.   What if we find an honest place for citizens within the system.  If we can do that, then we will not only be creating engaged citizens, but we will also be creating future leaders.  Increased voter turnout will be the symptom of including citizens in day to day democracy.  

None of these thoughts, however,  exclude donuts.  I still think donuts will bring in more voters.

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