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MARTHA MUZYCHKA: If you can mark an X … you should

If you spoil your ballot or don’t vote, who do you think will be paying attention? Voting is the best way to make your voice heard. —
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It was an ordinary day on the outside — ordinary, that is, as much as we’ve come to expect chilly May weather in St. John’s — but there was something extraordinary going on inside.

We had gone to vote. It was advance polling day, and we were taking advantage of the opportunity to cast our ballots early.

What made it extraordinary, at least for our family, is that there were three of us who would be taking turns in the polling booth. In the last election, our son was an adolescent. This time, he’s an adult, and he was very much interested in taking part.

I checked a proverbial box in my mental list of parenting wins. We hadn’t really talked about the election — the parties, the candidates, the issues — at great length, but I was happy that our son has grown up to feel that voting is something he ought to do.

This column will be published on Election Day itself in Newfoundland and Labrador, and there have been grave concerns about how low the turnout will be. The trend has certainly be worrisome; it’s been declining for years, and in 2015 we earned the dubious distinction of setting the record for the lowest turnout in an N.L. election: 55.2 per cent.

(We’re not much better in federal elections. Last time, about 61 per cent voted — and as the Conference Board of Canada noted, it was still the lowest rate among the provinces.)

Some people fully expect the turnout in today’s election to be even lower. I hope it’s not, but I have to recognize the troubling signs that people are disconnecting from the political process.

It’s not just here. The news from the United States frequently carries reports of how democratic institutions are under assault, of how voting rights are curbed in some areas, of just how much work someone needs to do.

We have our own problems. The biggest one I see around us is the air of “why bother?” I can’t get over how many people feel that their vote doesn’t matter, because the outcome will not fundamentally be different.

I appreciate the frustration, but the logical end of that line of thinking is quite scary. We all need to invest time and patience in connecting with each other.

More importantly, we need to a political process that goes beyond putting a small piece of paper in a wooden box every four years. We need to open up our democratic institutions and processes, and get it beyond the party lines that prevent so many people from even taking part.

Fixed dates? Yes. And let’s actually stick with them.

In days of olde — actually, just back to the 80’s and 90’s, when Brian Peckford and Brian Tobin were around — some premiers liked the power of the snap election. We supposedly fixed that 15 years or so ago with fixed-date legislation for elections every fourth October, but we’ve clashed with where the federal vote is happening.

The answer is not allowing the premier an out of calling an election when he or she wants. When our new MHAs go back, let’s have them revise the fixed date itself, and pick a date they can agree with.

And stick with it.

Let’s open up the franchise of voting. Permanent residents in Canada cannot vote, and while the process of becoming a citizen is critical, it has become expensive and daunting. In my view, voting at the local and provincial level should be allowed for permanent residents, as a way to bring new voices to the table — and to help deepen the connections for people who have chosen here as the place they want to make a home.

Last, it’s on each of us to take part — and to find a way to contribute. Maybe it ends at the ballot box for some people, but it need not be so limiting. Let’s be creative with our democracy, and cherish it.

The right to vote did not come easily to all of us, and in some places globally, it is still challenging. I respect that history, and my opportunity to have a say. I hope you do, too. As the immortal Jerry Boyle said, “If you can mark an X, you are my kind of people.”

Martha Muzychka is a writer who has voted in every municipal, provincial and federal election since she turned 19.

Related story:

Survey asks why voter turnout is usually low in Newfoundland and Labrador

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