Does democracy work?

In the last federal election, held in October of 2008, 58.8 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast a ballot. This was a drop of almost six per cent from 2006, and more than 20 per cent from the highest voter turn out, of 79.4 per cent in 1957.

The 2008 election had the worst voter turnout in Canadian history for a federal election. The next worse being the election that saw former prime minister, Paul Martin, win a Liberal minority government in 2004, with a turnout of 60.9 per cent. And while these numbers are historically low for Canadian federal elections, they put the 19.1 per cent of University of Manitoba students who cast ballots in the 2009 UMSU election to shame. Especially when you consider the fact that the previous two UMSU elections — 2007 and 2008 — failed to attract more than a tenth of eligible voters.

Why are numbers at the university so low? Frankly, I don’t know why students at the U of M seem so uninterested in voting for their student government. But what I do know is that during the seven years of my post-secondary education, I did not cast a single ballot for a student government. Why was I so uninterested? Apathy.

I didn’t believe that one person would do a better, or worse job than any other, nor could I see how electing candidate A would improve my time in school versus candidate B. About the only politically active thing I did was complain, until, that is, someone pointed out to me that I had no right to complain about a system I did not take part in. That was when I started voting.

Since then I have voted in two civic elections, one provincial election and three federal elections.

But is my vote making a difference? I often wonder what one voter can do in a representational democracy. After I throw my support behind a politician, he or she goes off to their city hall, legislature or parliament and governs, apparently in my interest. The obvious question being, how do they know what my interest is?

I think our system of government — representational democracy — might be partially to blame for high amounts of apathy and low voter turnout, especially in young people. However, I don’t think it has to be that way. On several occasions I have written letters to my representatives regarding issues I wanted dealt with, on subjects as diverse as post-secondary funding to potholes to funding for infant immunizations. And I have received a response to each and every email, most of the time promising to address the issue. Once I even received free parking in city of Winnipeg lots after a screw-up with the pay-by-phone system available at city parking meters.

Are my actions petty? Maybe, but I know that when I vote, the person I’m voting for has demonstrated a willingness to work to make my life a little bit better and cares about what his or her constituents want.

To this end, and in an attempt to demonstrate to unbelievers that representational democracy does work, I am proposing a scientific experiment. In what is surely my biggest ask to date of a politician, I am going to try to change the smoking laws by engaging all three levels of government.

Those of you who religiously read the Manitoban might remember an open letter I wrote to my downstairs neighbours in October, jokingly asking them to stop smoking in the house. While the open letter was meant to be tongue in cheek, I was serious about asking them to stop, as the smoke was flooding into our suite, and potentially harming my 15-month old daughter. I have now reached the end of the road, in terms of appealing to my neighbours and the realty company who manages the property, without making any headway. Appealing to my politicians is my only recourse, and I plan to document it here, as a demonstration of democracy in action, and for the entertainment value.

Stay tuned.

Leif Larsen is the Science Editor at the Manitoban.