On Oct. 21 millions of Canadians headed to the polls to vote in the 43rd federal election, while millions justifiably did not.
For many, current discourse around voting rings hollow. While many believe that the act of voting is a moral imperative, a civic duty, others feel that the right thing to do is abstain. As is often seen around elections, the idea that those privileged enough to be unaffected by the outcome of the election are the same people who don’t participate has become widespread on social media.
An examination of exactly who is not voting quickly paints a picture contrary to this discourse.
Factors such as education and economic well-being play a significant role in who votes. In education, voter turnout is lower among those with a high school education or less. In terms of economic well-being, those who rent their homes as well as those who are unemployed are significantly less likely to vote.
Strikingly, voter turnout among Indigenous people living on reserves has consistently been lower than the overall rate for Canada.
The facts simply do not support the idea that not voting is a position taken up by the privileged. Overwhelmingly, those who are worse off in society are the people who do not vote. In contrast, those who are more privileged, in terms of education, employment and housing are the most likely to vote.
Those who are worse off in society arguably stand to gain a lot from the election of politicians who can improve their situations with favourable policy. They also stand to lose the most from austerity policies that promise to dismantle what support is available to them. So it may seem strange to some that as a group these people don’t vote.
The ideas of Italian politician and intellectual Antonio Gramsci — who produced his most influential works while imprisoned by the Benito Mussolini regime during the 1930s — helps make sense of this phenomenon.
Gramsci is most famous for his writings on the concept of hegemony — the idea that the ruling class of any given society maintains its position and ensures the continued operation of society through a combination of consent and coercion.
For Gramsci, as part of the tradition of Marxist thinking, every society does indeed have a ruling class. It likely doesn’t take the form of conspirators determining, behind closed doors, everything that happens. Rather, there are people who, by virtue of their position in society, reap massive benefits from the current society and use the power that comes with such benefits to continue this cycle.
In general terms, consent is won through making participation in the society as it exists appealing to most people. There are benefits that come with helping society run smoothly, such as good jobs, high standards of living and an otherwise reasonable expectation of living a good life.
Societal coercion is closely associated with prisons, police, military intervention (like that seen at the pipeline protests at Standing Rock and the Unist’ot’en blockade) and poverty. Those who are coerced faceexclusion from the good life promised to others, but have no choice but to exist in the society. Rather, it is imposed on them.
Those who experience coercion will not see society as being run for them. They will feel excluded from the good life promised to others and even view society in general as being against them.
Using Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is useful in understanding low voter turnout among those less well-off in society. If you don’t see your interests as being represented in society, what difference does it make whether you vote?
This understanding also lends itself to a more conscious rejection of voting, especially for Indigenous people like me.
Despite the ongoing process of reconciliation, Canada is built on a foundation of settler colonialism. With the disastrous treatment and displacement of Indigenous people continuing — demonstrated by the recent incidents of militarized intervention on Unist’ot’en territory, forced sterilization of Indigenous women and the ongoing crisis of access to clean water on reserves — consenting to current Canadian society by voting in elections is unthinkable.