The status quo we know

If Americans voted for change they can believe in last fall, British Columbians opted for the status quo they know when they went to the polls Tuesday.

Sifting through the tea leaves of a provincial election that saw a Liberal majority returned with almost the same percentage of the popular vote as it received four years ago, an NDP opposition with almost the same percentage of the vote as four years ago, and all the seats divvied up among the two parties once again - although that could change with recounts - you'd have to say British Columbians were not in the mood for change. Perhaps that's to be expected; in tough times people hunker down, become a little more conservative and focus on basics.

And that played well to the Liberals' apparent strength and their main message throughout the campaign: rebuilding the economy and working our way out of the recession. For all the talk about the B.C. Rail scandal, run of river hydro projects, the carbon tax and the unpopularity of Gordon Campbell himself, the one issue most people see the Liberals as most competent to deal with, and the NDP least competent to deal with, is the economy. Which is one explanation for the status quo election results.

But does that explain the appalling low voter turnout? Barely half of eligible British Columbians bothered to vote Tuesday. It continues a disturbing trend that has seen voter turnout decline steadily, from 59 per cent in 1996 to 55 per cent in 2001 and 58 per cent in 2005. Last month B.C.'s chief electoral officer, Harry Neufeld, predicted a record turnout of voters after registering nearly 3 million of B.C.'s 3.2 million eligible voters. The key demographic among non-voters, according to Neufeld, is people between the ages of 25 and 34 who aren't "engaged" in the process.

There are numerous theories for the record low turnout for this election - election fatigue and the failure of the parties to motivate voters are two popular ones.

But many have suggested one critical reason people aren't engaged is dissatisfaction with the first-past-the-post, all or nothing system. This election presented a second chance in four years for people to change the system, and they overwhelmingly rejected that opportunity.

Advocates of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which was put to a referendum Tuesday, say voter turnout is higher when STV is used. But when support for STV goes from more than 57 per cent in 2005 to about 40 per cent in 2009 - that's 40 per cent of the 50 per cent of British Columbians who got off their duffs and voted - it's not a concept that is engaging people. It was given every chance to succeed - two referendums, equal financial support to Yes and No sides, the Liberals and NDP officially staying neutral, the Green Party a vocal advocate for it - and it failed utterly and miserably.

According to the Vancouver Sun , the Yes side had about 5,000 volunteers; the No side had about three dozen. An Ipsos Reid poll prior to the election showed various groups - university graduates, high school graduates, decided voters - all favoured the existing system over STV; the status quo they know.

The Droop Quota formula, the counting of transferred votes, the likelihood of successive minority governments, the larger ridings (with boundaries drawn on maps this time around) and less individual accountability of MLAs to constituents, particularly in smaller communities, just didn't resonate with voters. But then, neither did the whole election.

While STV must certainly be a dead issue, the idea of electoral reform is not. There will continue to be advocates for a system that brings about proportional representation in the legislature. True democracy demands that if 8 per cent of voters support the Green Party, the Greens should have 8 per cent of the seats, they argue.

Perhaps. But a more elementary step in electoral reform would be getting more people out to vote. The opportunity to change the system didn't excite eligible voters. Efforts to register more voters didn't help. Three federal elections in five years, producing three minority governments, probably didn't help either.

In fact, it may not be a dramatic change of systems that leads to more people being engaged in the political process. It may be things more subtle and gradual, like education, thinking beyond oneself, a better understanding of individual responsibility and sticking to something even when the results aren't what we'd hoped for.


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