Jack Knox: Begging people to vote is a waste of democracy

“My question is, why are we always begging people to vote? It’s embarrassing. The people in this country are the luckiest people on Earth; if they don’t realize it, screw them. On the contrary: we should be grateful that the disinterested and brain dead know who they are and at least have the good taste to stay home on Election Day.”
— U.S. political commentator Bill Maher

None of the 40 people in line to vote at the Admirals Road advance poll minded when Thelma Fayle went to the head of the queue.

In fact, they insisted. As word spread that the woman with the walker was 98 years old, and that she has never missed an opportunity to vote, they waved her through.

“Each person wished her well and one young guy said he looked forward to seeing her at the next election,” reports her daughter, also named Thelma Fayle.

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“She broke into a big grin and threw her hand up in the air and high-fived him. … She really had a great time and then went home exhausted and slept.”

Well, bless Thelma Fayle Sr. for making the effort, bless those who sent her to the front, and bless Elections Canada for expanding the availability of advance polls this year.

The expansion was a smart move. It meant people who would have had a tough time breaking away from work on election day, Monday, won’t have to do so.

The turnout proved others found it convenient, too: 4.7 million Canadians voted in the advance polls over the long weekend, a 29-per-cent jump from 2015.

And let’s not forget that the turnout in the 2015 federal election was itself pretty good, relatively speaking: 68.5 per cent, the highest since 1993.

Still, our neighbours across the strait would smirk at that level of voter participation. In 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected, Washington state’s turnout nudged 79 per cent. When Obama was elected it was 85.

Why so high? In part, it’s because U.S. elections seem of greater consequence: the future of the free world versus the future of free dental care.

In part it’s because they make it easy to vote: Washington residents don’t have to go to the polls at all. Instead, they are mailed their ballots 18 days before the election, then post them back at their leisure.

The practice is more convenient for those with mobility issues, or who live in isolated areas, or who have trouble carving out time on election day. Anything that makes it easier to vote is good.

There’s a difference, though, between improving access and pandering to those who have no interest. Every time there’s an election, hand-wringing officials tie themselves in knots trying to coax Canadians off the couch and into the voting booth.

This year, Elections Canada even had a (thankfully abandoned) plan to spend $650,000 to have 13 “influencers” — including social media stars, YouTubers, Olympians and a gamer — urge their followers to vote.

About a dozen countries go so far as to enforce laws that make voting compulsory. Some make it hard for non-voters to get public-sector jobs, driver’s licences or daycare spots.

Why? Do you really want your government chosen by people so unmotivated/uninformed that getting them to cast a ballot involves the kind of persuasion/pleading normally associated with going for a colonoscopy/Christmas with the in-laws?

In 2014, I met a recent arrival from Afghanistan who was both baffled and dismayed to discover that a mere 27 per cent of voters turned out for Victoria’s municipal elections.

“In Afghanistan, we have the threat of the Taliban, who have the knives cutting off our fingers, and we still vote by the millions,” he said.

He was stunned to see then-mayor Dean Fortin mingling with voters at an election forum without an armed entourage, and to see mayoral candidate Stephen Andrew door-knocking without bodyguards. No violence? No finger-chopping? Why weren’t we voting?

To repeat: Democracy belongs to those who show up. No point spoon feeding it to those who don’t like the taste. No point coaxing or coercing those who are content to let someone else run their lives.

If you want to be a sheep, be a sheep. If you want to be a shepherd, then vote like Thelma Fayle, who will turn 99 a month from today.

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