Friday, October 15, 2010

Don’t just vote — engage

Just getting yourself out to vote, while necessary, isn’t going to be enough to get a better city council and school boards for our city. If we are to achieve that, we all need to get out on the last few days of the campaign to engage our friends, neighbours, colleagues, etc., in getting them out to vote. The more people who vote, the greater the odds of getting a more representative result from the election.

Please tell everyone you know that you are voting (or have voted if you did the advance vote). Nothing encourages behaviour in people more than seeing others engaging in that behaviour. “Primate see, primate do.”

However, I strongly recommend against saying things like “you should vote” — nobody likes being told what they “should” do (and it often triggers a rebellious response leading to the opposite behaviour out of spite). Far more effective, in my experience, has been things like “I’m voting on Monday, have you thought about your vote?”

If that hook catches them, I then say something like “there is a website with links to all the candidate information if you want to know more about what the choices are,” and then give them the link to Calgary Democracy.

Support your candidates

If you have a candidate you really like, please try to volunteer a couple hours with their campaign over the next few days. They really need to make a big final push to get their name out as much as possible. With so many of the races being very close this year, it genuinely could make the difference in determining who wins.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Those who choose not to vote still have the right to complain

I’ll start off by saying that I’m an avid voter. Not only do I vote in every government election I can, but I’ve voted in a school board by-election, for my credit union board, and more. If I had had the chance, I would have voted before I was 18 (I’ve been politically conscious for most of my life). I can not, in any way, be considered a non-voter. Further, I actively engage people with resources intended to support their voting, have moderated candidate forums, been an election station worker, and run workshops to help people better understand the voting process.

Please keep that in mind as you read the rest of this.

I’ve often heard people say around election time “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.” That’s wrong on more than one level.

On a basic freedom of speech principle, people have the right to complain no matter what they have or haven’t done.

There are more than just a few non-voters who see voting as an endorsement of a system they object to (I object to the current system, too, I just think that voting can help reduce some of its harm). Not voting in a system they disagree with should in no way limit their right to complain about that system and its actions and consequences. In fact, those people are often the ones with the most to say in complaint of the system.

There’s a quote on a button someone gave me years ago: “If 10 minutes every 4 years is all you put into democracy, that’s all the democracy you’re going to get.”

Voting is not democracy. Voting is a tool which can be applied in some contexts in support of certain aspects of democracy. However, democracy itself is a much, much, bigger pie. Just because someone doesn’t participate in one aspect of our society does not mean they must give up any right to participate in the rest of it.

So, to all the non-voters out there: Please keep bringing your voices to the democratic dialogue we need to be having as a society.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who gets to decide who the “legitimate” candidates are?

There is a lot of talk online and in the media about the “front-runners” in the election. Various individuals and media are pushing for a “front-runners-only” mayoral debate.

What the gosh-darned heck (to be honest, the words I’m actually thinking are much more graphic and vile) gives anyone other than the voters at the voting booth the right to narrow the choices of the voting public?

If a candidate is on the ballot, they should be able to be a full part of every candidate forum (applicable to the office they are running for) and have fair opportunity for equal coverage in the public media. Anything less is a taking away of access from the voters and is a violation of democratic principles.

Yes, it can make things tedious and messy, but democracy is worth every single bit of effort it demands.

Yes, it is often painful to have to sit through the speeches of some of the more “interesting” candidates, but the alternative in our present setup is to shut out the diverse voices in our society from full meaningful participation. That is not democratic.

The problem is not too many candidates, or “fringe” candidates. The problem is our archaic electoral system.

Workable alternatives

Our current electoral system doesn’t provide a fair way to narrow down the selection from a field of many candidates. The way our ballots are set up (“first past the post”) really only works well if you have no more than 2 choices. The solution to the problem comes in getting rid of our current system and putting in place something that actually allows for more refined selection processes.

Some good possibilities include things like alternative balloting systems, or multiple run-offs in the lead-up to the final vote, or something like the primaries held in the U.S.

So, rather than damaging what little semblance of democracy we have in this society by cutting out candidates from full participation in the public dialogue, let’s all step up our efforts to transform the system to allow for a more refined process than the archaic single “X” on a ballot.

Polls are not an expression of democratic will

The main thing used to excuse the exclusion of candidates are the polls that have been made public. Election-time polls typically show strong leads for just a few of the candidates on a given ballot. This is then used to justify excluding the non-leaders from further attention (thereby ensuring they are eliminated from having a chance of winning).

Published polls end up pushing public opinion in favour of those already in the lead. That’s the main reason I’m opposed to polls being made public.

Some try to present the poll measurements as something we can use in place of actual votes (such as in run-offs). That is not legitimate. The only way you could have a poll that truly represented the will of all eligible voters would be to poll every eligible voter. Otherwise, you’ve always got a margin of error greater than zero.

Some argue that our voting would also not be considered legitimate on those terms because so many eligible voters don’t vote. That argument is wrong. Those who choose to not vote have a fair opportunity to participate and choose not to. They are saying “this is not important enough to me to expend any effort on, so I’ll just accept what everyone else decides.” That is still an expression of their opinion, so fulfils (although quite poorly) the requirement that their voice have an opportunity to be expressed within the democratic system.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Inching closer to democracy

I am very excited by the tangible increase in accessibility, accountability and openness in this election which is countering, at least a bit of, the traditional biases that traditionally serve to diminish our efforts at democracy. Some encouraging examples from the current election:

We have seen multiple lists of candidates in commercial media, and on advocacy group websites, reordered from biased ordering to alphabetical or random in direct response to complaints raised on Twitter.

We’ve seen ads for one candidate removed from CTV’s page listing their interviews with all the candidates, again in response to complaints on Twitter.

Due to a mix of citizen-led pressure, peer-pressure, and media awareness, we have many candidates pre-disclosing their donor lists — for the first time ever (that I’m aware of) in Calgary politics. This has made for some interesting, and sometimes quite telling, reading.

We have increased awareness of, and some tentative early actions for, accessibility for people with varying needs (such as disabilities and English as a second language). Many event organizers are becoming aware of the need to have wheelchair access. Some online videos are being subtitled for the hearing impaired and translated into other languages. There certainly remains much still to be done to ensure equal access for all, though.

We’ve had much increased — although still far from perfect — awareness of rules restricting campaign signs on public land.

We’ve had (or are having) public all-candidate forums for every ballot in the election — thanks in large part to significantly increased civic engagement with groups like (and especially) CivicCamp. We’ve got more people aware of and attending those forums thanks to the calendar on Calgary Democracy (shameless plug), increased social media “word of mouth”, and increased coverage from traditional media (increased relative to previous elections). And we’ve got more people exposed to the content of those forums through online distribution of videos, along with what seems to be more broadcast of forums on radio (thank-you CJSW) and television.

We have quite a few candidates engaging in previously unheard of levels of accessible dialogue with citizens. A significant portion I’ve seen of this has been through online tools such as Twitter, but also through what seems (at least to me) to be a higher quantity of accessible public events than usual.

It’s still far from “enough” in my view, but these are very encouraging developments and do bring us closer to democracy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Alberta soldiers excluded from voting

The Calgary Sun reported today that many Canadian soldiers from Alberta who are stationed overseas (such as in Afghanistan) will not be able to vote in this month’s municipal elections throughout the province.

Now, those who know me know that I am no fan of the military, but I am somewhat of an extremist when it comes to including everybody in the democratic process. It is a travesty that these citizens are being left out of the process because of an inability of the various levels of government and the Canadian military to find a way to enable the soldiers to vote.

The problem stems from these factors: Typical mail delivery time for overseas military is apparently at least 5 weeks. There are just 4 weeks from nomination day until election day in our municipal elections. The Provincial legislation governing municipal elections only allows for traditional voting station balloting and “Special Ballots” which must be physical paper (not electronic), but which can be mailed or otherwise transported from outside the province.

In discussions on Twitter today, we talked about what I consider to be three very doable possibilities:
  1. Provide “Special Ballots” (that’s the legal term under Alberta Provincial election regulations) that allow for candidate names to be written in by the voter. A supply of these fill-in-the-name ballots could be made available to the remote military operations (with various authentication measures) and, with the cooperation of the military, could be filled out by the voters and rush-delivered back to Canada for inclusion in the election day counting.
  2. Change the provincial legislation to make a special exception for overseas military operations to allow for electronic voting. This would require collaboration (and legal wrangling) between the Province and the military, as well as imposing a blanket policy to include this voting method for all Alberta municipalities (who currently have some leeway in defining their own paper balloting procedures).
  3. Provision for establishing remote special polling stations at military bases overseas. From a municipal elections offices stand-point, this would not require much variation from existing procedures for setting up special polling stations at hospitals and such. The big difference would be in allowing for remote reporting of results, to be verified by the later delivery of the actual ballots. This, like the previous option, would require some coordination with military officials.

So, 3 very viable options to address this failure of democracy. None of which can feasibly (or legally, without unprecedented rapid intervention by probably at least 2 levels of our governments) be done in time for this election.

Here’s what I want Albertans to do: Call, and write to, your MLA telling them you want them to ensure that Alberta soldiers who are stationed overseas are never again excluded from the democratic process at any level of our governments. This afternoon I telephoned my MLA’s office, and then sent a more detailed email to him (and Cc’d the four in-Legislature party leaders).

Someone on Twitter asked about trying to lobby the federal Conservative government to improve on the 5+ weeks delivery time so that the soldiers would be able to just use the mail-in ballots that other citizens can use. That would be great, but I don’t see it as realistic. It would require a radical shift in thinking on the part of the feds toward actually supporting our troops instead of just spouting patriotic platitudes.