Tag Archives: voting

Why Does Election Canada Hate Young People?

This weekend the New York Times had an interesting article about how the BBC and other major media organizations are increasingly broadcasting new television episodes simultaneously around the world. The reason? The internet. Fans in the UK aren’t willing to wait months to watch episodes broadcast in the United States and vice versa. Here a multi-billion dollar industry, backed by copyright legislation, law enforcement agencies, and the world’s most powerful governments and trade organizations is recognizing a simple fact: people want information, and it is increasingly impossible to stop them from sharing and getting it.

Someone at Elections Canada should read the article.

Last week Elections Canada took special care to warn Canadian citizens that they risked $25,000 fines if they posted about election results on social network sites before all the polls are closed. Sadly, Election Canada’s approach to the rise of new internet driven technologies speaks volumes about its poor strategy for engaging young voters.

The controversy centers around Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act which prohibits transmitting election results before polling stations have closed. The purpose of the law is to prevent voters on the west coast from being influenced by outcomes on the east coast (or worse, choosing not to vote at all if the election has essentially be decided). Today however, with twitter, facebook and blogs, everybody is a potential “broadcaster.”

Westerner may have a hard time sympathizing with Election Canada’s quandary. It could simply do the equivalent to what the BBC is doing with its new TV shows: not post any results until after all the voting booths had closed. This is a much simpler approach then trying to police and limit the free speech of 10 million Canadian social media users (and to say nothing of the 100s of millions of users outside of Canada who do not fall under its jurisdiction).

More awkwardly, it is hard to feel that the missive wasn’t directed at the very cohort of Election’s Canada is trying to get engaged in elections: young people. Sadly, chastising and scaring the few young people who want to talk about the election with threats of fines seems like a pretty poor way to increase this engagement. If voting and politics is a social behaviour – and the evidence suggests that it is – then you are more likely to vote and engage in politics if you know that your friends vote and engage in politics. Ironically, this might make social media might be the best thing to happen to voting since the secret ballot. So not only is fighting this technology a lost cause, it may also be counter productive from a voter turnout perspective.

Of course, based on the experience many young voters I talk to have around trying to vote, none of this comes as a surprise.

In my first two Canadian elections I lived out of the country. Both times my mail in ballot arrived after the election and were thus ineligible. During the last election I tried to vote at an advanced poll. It was a nightmare. It was hard to locate on the website and the station ended up being a solid 15 minute walk away any of the three nearest bus routes. Totally commute time? For someone without a car? Well over an hour and a half.

This are not acceptable outcomes. Perhaps you think I’m lazy? Maybe. I prefer to believe that if you want people to vote – especially in the age of a service economy – you can’t make it inconvenient. Otherwise the only people who will vote will be those with means and time. That’s hardly democratic.

Besides, it often feels our voting infrastructure was essentially built by and for our grandparents. Try this out. In the 1960’s if you were a “young person” (e.g 20-30) you were almost certainly married and had two kids. You probably also didn’t move every 2 years. In the 60’s the average marriage age was 24 for men, 20 for women. Thinking in terms of the 1950s and 60s: What were the 3 institutions you probably visited on a daily basis? How about A) the local community centre, B) the local elementary school, and C) the local church.

Now, if you are between the age of 20 and 35 or under, name me three institutions you probably haven’t visited in over a decade.

Do young people not vote because they are lazy? Maybe. But they also didn’t have a voting system designed around them like their grandparents did. Why aren’t their voting booths in subway stations? The lobbies of office towers? The local shopping mall? How about Starbucks and Tim Hortons (for both conservatives and liberals)? Somewhere, anywhere, where people actually congregate. Heaven forbid that voting booths be where the voters are.

The fact is our entire voting structure is anti-young people. It’s designed for another era. It needs a full scale upgrade. Call it voting 2.0 or something, I don’t care. Want young people to vote? Then build a voting system that meets their needs, stop trying to force them into a system over a half century old.

We need voting that embraces the internet, social networks, voters without cars and voters that are transient.  These changes alone won’t solve the low voter turn out problem overnight, but if even 5% more young people vote in this election, the parties will take notice and adapt their platforms accordingly. Maybe, just maybe, it could end up creating a virtuous circle.

Facebook, Politics and Proroguing Parliament

I’ve got a special to the Globe and Mail this morning titled Harper underestimates Facebook at his own peril. I’m happy and surprised to see the piece has climbed to the top of the site in terms of views (see sidebar)

Part of it is born out of the fact that a number of political commentators seem to discount online political engagement. I cite Matt Gurney in the piece as he seems to be upset about the current facebook group – although he was notably silent last year when there was a facebook group supporting the Conservatives and even attended a rally in Toronto that the online group helped organized.

Globe and Mail Most Viewed 2010-01-11 at 8.49.19 AMOf course, National Post commentators have a history of flip flopping depending on what helps or hurts the Conservatives so I’ll concede they may not have been the best group to cite.

More frustrating is the At Issue political panel on the CBC where Susan Delacourt says, “it is easy to just click on something, we’ll have to see what happens at the rallies” and Coyne saying “Will people show up at rallies.” (Around minute 9:30 onward)


So politics only matters if it is hard? Next thing we know is that they’ll not only be against electronic voting, but promoting a system where you get to vote only after you’ve successfully run the Wipe Out obstacle course. Because only then will a voter have demonstrated that their vote should REALLY count!

obstacle courseSo pundit summary: We want citizens to care about parliament and are glad they are on facebook… but it only really begins to count once they start marching. Like we did back in the 60s.

Glad we cleared that up.

The Myth of the "Wasted" Vote

One of the most disturbing allegations to come out of the electoral reform debate was the notion that people who voted – but whose candidate didn’t win – had their vote “wasted.”

The biggest problem with this analysis is that it casts the meaning and purpose of voting in the narrowest light possible. Defined this way, the purpose of voting is only to elect your representative. Consequently, you either succeed or you fail. Once the vote is over, how you voted takes on no further meaning.

This, of course, is completely false.

Ultimately, governments may win a majority of seats in a legislature, but the margin of their victory does impact the manner and confidence with which they govern. Parties nervous about their future will look to see how they can steal votes from other parties by adopting (stealing) their ideas. In this regard, voting is a powerful signal voters can send, one that communicates quite powerfully to parties, letting them know what they should do if they want to increase their appeal to certain communities.

For a practical example, take a look at the Green Party in British Columbia. Does voting for the BC Green Party constitute a wasted vote? I believe not. I would argue the existence of the Green Party – and the significant vote that it garners – has forced the other parties to react to its agenda. Would we presently have a Liberal Party in BC that is implementing a carbon tax if it weren’t for the Green Party? I suspect not. The pressure this group brought to bear – by making clear that there is a voting constituency interested in Green matters – has been significant, even if it has not won any seats. I would argue that not one of those votes has been “wasted.” Each one has communicated a powerful message.

I can imagine that living in a riding where a specific party is unlikely to win can be frustrating – but calling those votes wasted reveals a misunderstanding of how the system can be influenced and unfairly devalues the voting process. I hope we get over using this language if we end up looking at electoral reform again…

I’m voting no to BC-STV

For those outside of British Columbia we have a referendum on May 12th to determine if the province should shift from its current voting system, called First Past the Post (FPTP), to Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV).

Watching the back and forth over the referendum on BC-STV has, I sense, left most citizens of British Columbia exasperated and confused. On both sides, people pronounce that a change will either bring political nirvana to the province, or utter disaster. It’s all a little over dramatic.

The truth is, the current system is not a disaster nor is the proposed change a nirvana. Both have strengths and weaknesses – this is because fundamentally, they are seeking to accomplish different things.

At present, our system favours geographic representation. In BC we don’t have a single election, we have 85 individual elections – one in each riding. Consequently, a party that wins 34% in each individual race could win every seat. This means that ideologically – a single perspective get represented. It is rare, but it is possible.

BC-STV is an attempt to create electoral outcomes that better reflect not how individual ridings voted, but how people voted across the province. In short, it seeks to enhance ideological representation by enabling voters who are distributed across ridings to elect representatives whose ideas resonate with them.

The challenge is, one cannot have it both ways. You cannot strengthen province wide ideological representation without weakening local representation. And herein lies the central trade off between the two systems: Local accountability versus great ideological representation at the provincial level.

Both are noble objectives. They just happen to be incompatible, one comes at the expense of the other. For me, this reduces any assessment of BC-STV to this question: do the benefits of improved ideological representation outweigh the costs of reduced local accountability? I think the answer is no.

In part, this is because I happen to place a high value on local representation. Others who think geography is less important than ideology will likely disagree (these are legitimate, and likely irreconcilable perspectives).

However, I’m also concerned about BC-STV because to achieve better ideological representation, I believe it makes some significant and problematic trade-offs (listed below). That, and there are the infamous unknown unknowns involved in adopting a new system.


The biggest problem with BC-STV is that, to achieve a balance between ideological and local representation, it presents votes with a system that is almost impossible to understand. I’m a policy wonk and a political junkie, as such I’m genuinely interested in these things and like to think I know a little about them. I’ve just gone through the literature umpteenth times and while I understand how it works, it is grossly complicated. I have not ideas of what its implications will be nor am I sure that the manner and order by which votes get weighted is fair.

One thing you want from an electoral system is that it be easily understood. This is important so that people know exactly who they are voting for and what their vote means. BC-STV is so complicated that the Vote No campaign websites directs readers to the explanatory video developed by the Citizens Assembly (their opponents). Even its advocates can’t explain it simply.


In order to create greater ideological representation BC-STV has to weaken local representation. It does this by making ridings (districts for Americans) larger. Consequently, in BC-STV we would end up with mega ridings, the largest being 372,000 sq km. But the ratio of elected officials to votes would however, remain the same meaning that each “riding” would be served by somewhere between 2 and 7 MPs. This has several problematic implications.

First, who’s accountable? When there is a problem in your riding who do you complain to? Who is your elected official? Do you complain to all seven? The one you voted for? The member who is part of the government? All of them? A 7 member riding dilutes the connection between the voter and their representatives.

Second, it can create problematic feedback loops. If voters who vote for the Green Party only ever contact the Green Party representative and Liberal Party voters only contact the Liberal Party member in their riding we run the risk of creating a selection bias driven echo chambers. Party’s actually become more ideological and partisan.

Finally, individual MPs voices are diminished. In our current system, MPs influence derives from the fact that they have a machine on the ground and that they know their riding better than anyone. Large ridings make this harder to sustain. More importantly, when there are multiple candidates from a single party in the riding, the party can choose to deploy more resources towards candidates that will not challenge the party or its leader. The outcome is that BC-STV actually weakens the independence of elected officials.

Small Parties, Big Voices

I’m not opposed to coalition governments per se but, unlike many BC-STV supporters, I do not think they are inherently good either. BC-STV supporters are correct in asserting that smaller parties will have a greater voice. What often isn’t explained is that that voice won’t be proportional to the number of seats they elect – it can end up being disproportionately influential. Imagine a small party that garnered 8% of the provincial vote holds the balance of power in the legislature. It can effectively make any demand it wants to prop up the government. As a result, a platform supported by just 8% of voters suddenly becomes dominant. I know many of my environmentalist friends are excited by the prospect of the Green Party holding that balance of power… but there is no guarantee that this would be the outcome. What if the nascent Conservative Party were to be that force? They would almost certainly force the Liberals – arguable the most progressive party on the environment and First Nations issues – to move backwards on issues like the Carbon Tax and the New Relationship.

For these and other reasons, I’m ultimately opposed to BC-STV. Is FPTP perfect? Hardly, but BC-STV is still less so.

I now there are a lot of readers out there who are supporters so feel free to vent below in the comments section. I’ll try to respond to counter arguments as best I can.

For those who want to know more and educate themselves before tomorrow’s vote, here is a link to the BC-STV site and to the No STV site.

Why voting is like eating ice cream

In the past I’ve posted about how I believe that voting should be more convenient, and that this could help start a virtuous loop that might lead more young people to vote. Specifically, I’ve lamented that we have a voting system that concentrates voting stations in community centres, churches and schools – places that are out of the way and/or not on common commuting paths for many young people.

People can complain that young people are lazy. Maybe they are – but so what? In an era where things are available at the click of a mouse young people are accustomed to a different level of convenience. You might wish they were willing to walk through the snow for a kilometer or two to vote, but by and large they aren’t. Does this mean that I don’t think we should try to encourage people to care about voting more – absolutely not, I’m a huge fan of groups like Student Vote. But I believe that there may be some quick – more readily achieved – and cheaper wins in designing voting systems for lazy people. This would certainly be easier than trying to make people less lazy.

I’ve recently started following the blog by the authors of Nudge, since I’m a big fan of figuring out how we can passively design systems to that encourage people to adopt “good” behaviours. Recently they pointed to a food/diet blog that outlined the conclusions of the following (sadly uncited) experiment:

“One cafeteria tested (how much effort people will go to to eat ice cream) by leaving the lid of an ice cream cooler closed on some days and open on other days. The ice cream cooler was in the exact same location, and people could always see the ice cream.  All that varied was whether they had to go through the effort of opening the lid in order to get it.  Even that was too much work for many people.  If the lid was closed, only 14% of the diners decided it was worth the modest effort to open it.  If the lid was open, 30% decided it was ice cream time.”

Essentially, this tiny shift doubled the number of people who chose ice cream. Rather than designing new (complicated) ways of voting, this is where I’d like to start. What are the small things we can do around voting to make it easier, to “nudge” people to make the civically minded choice? Voting booths in more places – and nicer places, say the local coffee shop? In the mall? Or how about on the street corner? And then of course, there is the postal voting (that actually comes on time and works) and the holy grail of on-line voting (with all of its dangerous identity implications).

Either way, let’s think about how we can re-engineer voting and make it easier for those of us born in the 20th (not to mention 21st) century. We could castigate and hate ourselves for being lazy – or we can design an easier way to vote, one that will nudge us towards a behaviour people seem to think is good. I know I’d rather spend my energy on the latter.

Young, left and voting

As we all know young people don’t vote. That’s why these charts shouldn’t surprise anyone… right?

(These charts are stolen from the New Politics Institute).

But don’t worry, You may soon be able to retreat to the old stereotype of the apathetic young voter since Hillary Clinton is doing everything she can to turn this new generation of democrats off of politics all together.

The other reason young people don’t vote – or why I didn’t vote yesterday

I tried voting yesterday in a local by-election (advanced poll). Sadly, I was unsuccessful.

First, I went to the Elections Canada by-election website. Guess which link tells you the election dates and locations? (hint: it is under the “and more…” link).

Unsurprisingly, the advanced poll was at a local church (more on that below) that was a half kilometer away from all the local bus routes. But the kicker was that I’d failed to notice the opening time of the polling station, so upon my arrival at 10:15 (I was hoping to arrive after the prework rush) I discovered that the polling booth wouldn’t open until 11:00am. With a 11am meeting scheduled downtown, my day of democracy was over. Was my negative experience Elections Canada’s fault? Absolutely not. I’d failed to notice the polling start time. But it did make me wonder about the whole process of voting, and why young people seem to avoid it.

A lot of noise has been made about the dropping voting rates among young people. Some (usually young people) argue politicians and political parties don’t advocate agendas or messages that appeal to young people. Others (usually their parents) claim our schools fail to teach enough civics and that society doesn’t imbue the behaviour in our young people. And finally, still other people (usually their grandparents) believe young people are simply hedonistic, self-centered, and lazy (and likely undeserving of the right to vote anyway).

I agree that many young people don’t vote because they fail to see how a single vote in a the political process will have any impact, particularly when the choices are, quite frankly, not that appealing. That said, the rise of Barack Obama clearly points to the fact that young people will mobilize themselves and vote in fairly large numbers if stirred.

There is however another, important reason why I believe young people don’t vote. Some call it laziness. I prefer the term convenience.

The simple fact is that the voting infrastructure we use today was essentially built by and for our grandparents. Since then, it has been barely tweaked. Try this out. In the 1960’s if you were a “young person” (e.g 20-30) you were almost certainly married and had two kids. (60’s avg marriage age was 24 for men, 20 for women). Thinking in terms of the 1950s and 60s: What were the 3 institutions you probably visited on a daily basis? How about A) the local community centre, B) the local school, and C) the local church.

Now, if you are between the age of 25 and 35 or under, name me three institutions you probably haven’t visited in over a decade.


Do young people not vote because they are lazy? Maybe. But they also didn’t have a voting system designed around them like their grandparents did. Why aren’t their voting booths in subway stations? The lobbies of office towers? The local shopping mall? How about Starbucks? Somewhere, anywhere, where people actually congregate. Heaven forbid that voting booths be where the voters are.

I don’t claim that such a move would magically solve the youth voting issue. But imagine if such a move increased young voting turnout by even 5%. Suddenly the youth demographic would be the fastest growing segment of voters and you can bet your bottom dollar that political parties would suddenly pay a lot more attention. That in turn might create a virtuous circle: with more parties appealing to them, more young people might turn out to vote.

It’s not magic bullet – but since we can’t make political parties appeal to young people, let’s fix what we can control. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have a voting infrastructure designed by and for the 21st century, would it?