By James Bickerton
Common in many political systems today, within Canada and beyond, is a long-term erosion in democratic engagement. This takes the form of both declining political participation and declining levels of knowledge about politics.
The fall-off is particularly acute among younger citizens, and especially those with lower levels of education; studies show that age and education are the primary determinants of political engagement. As for Newfoundland and Labrador, voter turnout in federal elections has been the lowest in the country for decades; more recently, turnout has fallen off dramatically in provincial elections as well. These are indicators of a systemic problem, often referred to as a “democratic deficit,” and it seems to be getting worse.
Research into political disengagement — including decreasing levels of trust and rising levels of voter cynicism, falling party membership and declining voter turnout — suggests that the causes are multiple. Political institutions, especially the intertwined electoral and party systems, have been identified as a primary cause. A generational shift associated with cultural and technological changes in communication media is another primary cause.
The defects of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system have been well documented. It regularly produces results in seats that are disproportionate to party share of the vote, giving super majorities to the governing party while stripping seats from other parties, sometimes reducing them to ineffectiveness as an organized opposition. It also tends to suppress both diverse voices in the legislature and overall voter turnout due to the predictability of electoral outcomes in many constituencies.
By producing one-party majority governments, it exaggerates the bias towards executive dominance over the legislature that already exists within our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. This “winner-take-all” approach creates and feeds a pathological pattern of politics that stokes adversarial politics while disincentivizing cross-party co-operation.
While there is no ideal electoral system, the defects of FPTP are clearly detrimental in their long-term impact on both democratic engagement and the functionality and legitimacy of Canada’s representative democracy. It is arguably the chief culprit in a democratic deficit that has emerged in tandem with the changing expectations of an increasingly diverse and more highly educated population, who are less disposed to a grudging acceptance of “politics as usual.”
Ignoring the need to reform this outdated system seems increasingly difficult to justify, especially now that the fundamental principles that should guide any proposed alternative are fairly clear and agreed upon. In this connection, note the five principles for electoral reform in the motion establishing the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform — namely, effectiveness and legitimacy, engagement, accessibility and inclusiveness, integrity, and local representation.
Widespread access to the Internet, the multi-channel universe of cable television, and the pervasiveness of social media has not helped to raise overall levels of civic literacy in society.
The technical questions surrounding how best to incorporate these principles into a viable alternative voting system have been addressed elsewhere through a range of innovations and modifications to the standard voting systems on offer. These include hybrid systems such as mixed-member proportional that seek to combine the benefits of FPTP and proportional representation; the use of vote thresholds (a minimum percentage of the vote in order to be awarded seats) that eliminates fringe and extremist parties; open lists that allow voters to choose between competing candidates within the same party; ranked ballots to ensure that winning candidates in single-member constituencies win a majority (50 per cent plus one) of the votes; and differential treatment for very large rural or remote ridings.
So it can be said that electoral system reform is perhaps the most straightforward way of increasing societal levels of political engagement (by changing the incentive structure for party behaviour, removing the vote-suppression effects of FPTP, etc.). The provincial legislature could begin this process, as others have done, with a special commission on electoral reform that could include a referendum after raising public consciousness and providing information about alternatives.
An even more vexing problem, though, is the political disengagement of youth. The current problem of non-participation in politics is rooted in the cultural and technological changes of the past quarter-century. Research suggests that non-participation among youth is particularly problematic and, contrary to expectations, it is not related to political alienation from, or a rejection of, democratic processes. Rather, it is primarily associated with a lack of political knowledge and interest. Proposed solutions have tended to focus on raising the “civic literacy” of youth through various means of promoting a politically knowledgeable citizenry. It appears that many young adults, especially those with low levels of educational attainment, lack the habits and skills needed for media attentiveness to politics. Widespread access to the Internet, the multi-channel universe of cable television, and the pervasiveness of social media has not helped to raise overall levels of civic literacy in society. On the contrary, it has contributed to a decline in political knowledge for many “by discriminating ever more strongly between uninformed and informed voters in their choice of online content.” This is reinforced by social inequalities in online political participation that are related to income and education. It seems the ever-expanding supply and variety of digital sources of information have not politically re-engaged the majority of youth.
Comparative research suggests that the best chance for governments, legislatures and civil society organizations to improve this situation is through determined efforts at “finding ways to use digital technologies for the purpose of civic education,” especially in the schools and through enhanced programs of adult education. The provincial legislature and government could begin to address this systemic problem by establishing a task force to first canvass the efforts of other jurisdictions with a mandate to recommend a set of initiatives targeting youth political engagement, tailored to provincial circumstances. If the legislature were to establish a broader Commission on Democratic Renewal, both electoral reform and youth political engagement could be included in its mandate.
About the Author
James Bickerton (Political Science, St. Francis Xavier University) is co-author of “Ties That Bind: Parties and Voters in Canada” (Oxford University Press, 1999) and co-editor of “Canadian Politics, 6th ed.” (University of Toronto Press, 2014) and “Governing: Essays in Honour of Donald J. Savoie” (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013). His research interests are in the areas of federalism, regionalism and party politics.