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.