Election 2011: Democracy Matters

Here in Ottawa, it seems like the minority governments of the past seven years have created a perpetual election watch accompanied by the same debate: polling trends have remained the same for some time now, so why bother having an election? The rationale appears to be that elections are justified only by partisan gains. If no party stands to improve their position, there’s no point in having an election.

Polls over the last week have proved this argument to be moot: election campaigns can change even poll trends that have been mired in place for years. But this argument is so narrowly focused that even if the polls hadn’t changed it would still be wrong. Elections aren’t merely about parties winning and losing seats.

Elections are a time of national dialogue and debate on issues of importance to Canadians. Elections engage citizens in a direct, democratic role: working as campaign volunteers, attending debates, informing themselves on issues and casting their ballots. Canadians have an opportunity to hold parliamentarians accountable, to choose the values they want to see expressed by government, and to vote for the parties and the policies they believe will achieve those values.

But here again it seems there is a debate over whether or not an election matters. The heated rhetoric of election campaigns, the personal partisan attacks, and the strategic focus of parties on just a few issues they think will win them votes can foster a sense that meaningful dialogue just doesn’t happen in an election. In the last election, voter turnout hit an all time low. And when there is a possibility that the party standings won’t change, it’s easy to feel cynical or apathetic about democracy. Why vote, we wonder, if our vote won’t really make a difference?

To be so cynical though is to ignore the moments when democracy has shone brilliantly in the past few weeks. Youth voter turnout is generally very low – so who would have imagined we’d be seeing youth voting mobs or students flocking to advance polls? At least two of the party leaders told us at the beginning of the campaign that we had only two options to vote for – so who would have imagined we’d be seeing polling numbers for a third option rising? Political parties took some voters or regions of the country for granted – so who would have imagined parties scrambling to change their strategies in the final week of the campaign, needing to address the very voters they thought they could ignore?

Of course the biggest reason not to be cynical is that cynicism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The surest way to guarantee things never change is to not get involved because you believe change will never happen. Sure, you can vote for your values in this election and you might not see them represented by our next government. But if you don’t vote your values in this election, then you certainly will not see them represented by our next government.

There are significant public justice values at stake in this campaign. We’ve highlighted some of them in our election features and election Ola!s over the past few weeks: poverty, health care, refugee and newcomer issues, taxes, creation care, transparency and accountability in government, Aboriginal issues, and affordable housing. While none of these may have gotten a lot of airtime in the media coverage of the election campaign, the major political parties each represent differing approaches and policies on these issues. This election will decide how our next government addresses each of them and the values that will determine their approach.

That means we have an important responsibility as citizens to weigh the values of our political parties and their policies and cast our votes in support of the values we believe in. This is an important decision that matters regardless of the parliamentary seat counts next week, regardless of the degree of passion and inspiration we feel when party leaders debate, and regardless of the hundred pressing reasons we may think we have not to vote.

Then, being an active citizen shouldn’t end with the election on May 2. We need to keep promoting our public justice values next week, next month, next year – when the election is a distant memory. We need to hold our representatives accountable on an ongoing basis: sharing policy options that promote public justice, dialoguing about differing views, and reminding them of God’s call to love all of our neighbours, to do justice and to care for the earth.

Elections matter. Citizenship matters. Let’s do our part.