A couple of thoughts about the upcoming Canadian federal election

It has become a cliche, although it’s no less true, that “(f)or the past decade or so, Canada has been in the grip of a democratic malaise evidenced by decreasing levels of political trust, declining voter turnout, increasing cynicism toward politicians and traditional forms of political participation, and growing disengagement of young people from politics” (Law Reform Commission of Canada, 2004).

Why voter turnout has been falling: Part of the reason for this is that the results of elections under our present system do not correspond very closely to the vote count. As is well known, “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) can create huge distortions of the popular will – for example, in 1993, Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives received 16% of the national vote, but won only two seats. Yet in the same election, the Reform party with only about 3% more than the PCs won 52 seats, because its support was heavily concentrated in one region.

This travesty can easily be solved by proportional representation (PR), which the Greens and NDP, and apparently the Bloc Quebecois, support.

Vicious personal attacks and propagandistic distortions by mainstream politicians certainly have increased cynicism.

Indeed, some commentators have suggested the Conservatives are deliberately running a negative campaign in order to minimize the turnout. The thinking is that exploiting fear and loathing stimulates their base vote and at the same time so angers others about politics in general that they’ll stay home in disgust.

This divisive and cynical approach may not work with the “chattering classes”, who might be more likely to come out and vote against the Conservatives, but many knowledgeable observers believe it works for the electorate at large. And they point to polls to prove it.

But our increasing obsession with public opinion polls may also contribute to steadily declining turnouts. Polls may persuade voters that their preferred candidate either has it in the bag or has no chance of winning. In either case, why go out and vote?

Of course it’s wrong to say that “nothing I do can make a difference.”

With one federal riding in 2008 being won by 17 votes and another by 20 (not to mention ‘Landslide Annie’ McLellan’s 12 vote win for the Liberals in 1993), we can surely see that every vote counts.

Maybe there’s more interest this time: Pollsters project another Conservative minority, but unexpected events could change things quickly – a couple of weeks are an eternity in an election campaign.

I’m intrigued by the surge of popular initiatives flooding the web. If some of them go viral, the turnout, especially among young voters, could rise significantly and have an unexpected impact on election day.

In Canada today, there are YouTube videos, vote mobs, a vote for Canada rant (on Leadnow.ca), a Poly Nerd, an Impudent Strumpet, Murray Dobbin in rabble.ca, Catch22 Harper Conservatives, ProjectDemocracy.ca among others.

Commentators on these sites often express disillusionment with current politics and ask how to change the government. Often they answer the question with “strategic voting” – that is, voters deciding to vote for an acceptable party with a better chance of winning than their preferred choice.

Many candidates sense the potential of social media and are trying to jump on the Internet bandwagon, but blogger Dave Cournoyer (“Daveberta”) points out that most lack facility with twitter and facebook.

Rather than exploiting their interactive potential, they mostly use them only as a one-way tool to spread their structured messages.

I may be a “cyber-utopian” but if my hunch is right, and web-oriented Canadians are becoming more engaged in traditional electoral politics, the evening of May 2 will be interesting indeed.

Phil Elder is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Planning Law with the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. His column is distributed through Troy Media.