It’s raining elections. Albertans just made a trip to the polls. In the U.S., the names Obama, Clinton, and McCain are being discussed with a fervour usually reserved for major sports events. On March 9, voting begins in the Athabasca University Students’ Union (AUSU) election, and discussions are vigorous and abundant. Everyone, it seems, recognizes the value of keeping our democratic system alive and healthy.
And yet for all the hype and hoopla, all the pre-game warm-ups, the numbers tell a sadly different story. It seems we’re a nation that doesn’t question spending mind-boggling hours in front of the tube, but can’t work up the time or energy to vote. A nation that doesn’t seem to know what we’ve got?or how long and hard many of us had to fight to get it.
Take this week’s Alberta election. According to early numbers, it had the lowest voter turnout in the history of the province. A mere 41 per cent of eligible voters showed up?a drop from the equally abysmal 44.7 per cent in the 2004 campaign. Results in Canada’s 2006 general election were better, at 64.7 per cent, but still discouraging.
And the 2006 AUSU elections? Only 740 votes were cast by an eligible voter pool of over 40,000 students (and since people could vote for up to nine candidates, averaging it down the middle means only an estimated 148 members bothered to participate).
So why the fuss? After all, Canadian citizens over the age of 18 have a guaranteed right to vote. It’s in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If we can’t get around to voting this time, well . . . there’s always next time. But as history shows, the right to vote has often been manipulated to suit whatever political climate holds sway. It’s been denied to many Canadians based on gender, religion, and race. And even after long, hard battles were fought to win it, It’s been taken away.
Take the right of women to vote. Ancient history, you say? Think again: in Quebec, women didn’t have the right to vote provincially until 1940. That’s right, 1940. In fact, they once had the right but it was taken away. In the early 19th century, they were the only women in the British Empire who had the vote, but it was revoked and took nearly 100 years to get back. And in 18th century Prince Edward Island, Protestants lost the vote when new property qualifications were brought in (no land ownership, no more vote).
Other Canadians have waited?and fought?even longer for what so many of us take for granted. If You’re a Chinese- or Indo-Canadian, you wouldn’t have been allowed to vote until 1947. Japanese-Canadian? you’d have been denied the vote for another year, until 1948. Aboriginal? You had the right to vote by 1867?with a catch. All you had to do was give up all your treaty rights and Indian status. That situation lasted until 1960. And if you or someone you know has ever been in a mental health facility, you might be aware that patients there weren’t allowed voting rights until 1988, a mere 20 years ago.
If there’s one thing in life That’s guaranteed, It’s that nothing is guaranteed. It may seem incomprehensible in this age of increasingly indifferent voters that the right we take for granted could be removed. But political climates change. Governments change. It’s happened before and It’s only our complacency that assumes it couldn’t happen again. So whether It’s a provincial election, an Ohio primary, or choosing your AUSU councillors, let’s hope we know what we’ve got before (as that old song says) It’s gone.