elections are not decided by polls, and other thoughts on fair elections

I'm starting to think that in order to have fair elections, we not only have to ban all paid political advertising - an obvious improvement I've been running on about for years - but we must ban political polling too.

Maybe as soon as the writ drops, all pollsters should a mandatory six-week vacation. They could work privately for the parties and whoever else commissions them, but they would be embargoed from releasing results to media, and parties would be similarly prohibited. If we are concerned with the integrity of elections, this daily barrage of poll numbers has got to stop.

This country is insane for polls. We are constantly bombarded with the percentage of Canadians who have done this, haven't done that, bought something, ate something, thought about buying something, thought about trying something... it never ends. But daily polling during an election campaign is not only annoying and unnecessary. It's potentially damaging to democracy.

In a perfect world, voter turnout would always be high. Citizens would understand that there are substantial differences between the major political parties, and that decisions made in Parliament have profound and permanent effects. Everyone would understand that voting is the bare minimum of political participation, and they would take their voting rights and responsibilities seriously.

But, much to the joy of the corporate rulers of our world, and whichever black cat or white cat is currently in power, masses of people in North America who are eligible to vote, don't. Like most measures of quality of life and health of democracy, things are a bit better in Canada than the US. The 2008 federal elections in Canada showed the lowest turnout in Canadian history, yet that exceeded turnout in every US presidential election except three (1960, 1964, 1968, all in the low 60% range). (Sources: here, here, here.)

When it comes to US elections, turnout may be the least important problem. Elections are fraudulent in many respects: political parties control voter registration, voter rolls, vote counting, and a host of other shenanigans. There is no US equivalent of Elections Canada - a fact many Canadians are amazed to learn. It has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that both the 2000 and 2004 US presidential elections were fixed. And of course, there are only two parties, and they differ only in rhetoric.

Both countries use an undemocratic first-past-the-post system, but at least in Canada the units are much smaller. Imagine if every Ontario vote went to one party! And at least in Canada there's hope that we may one day have a proportional representation election system. I think.

So, returning from my digression... turnout is low all around. There are many reasons for this - lack of trust in the system, learned helplessness (the belief that one's actions cannot affect outcomes), ignorance, fear, and probably many other complex reasons that are poorly understood. It's often called "apathy", but that's a broad term that explains very little. People do care about their own lives, and they do care about issues. But they may not understand how what happens in government actually affects those issues they care about. Or they may not believe they have any choice.

But given that so many people don't vote, isn't it likely that constant predictions on the outcome of an election - especially that one particular outcome is all but certain - only serve to further suppress voting?

I suppose there's an argument that certain poll results might stimulate voting. For example, we recently heard that 74% of Canadians do not want a Harper majority government. If polls show the Conservatives on the verge of a majority, perhaps more people will vote in order to prevent it. It's a weak argument, at best. It applies only to very specific situations, and it's based mainly on wishful thinking. Rather than try to calculate which poll results might increase turnout and which may decrease it, why not just wait until the people have their say?

We're all so accustomed to this constant polling that we accept it as a natural fixture of the political landscape. But if you stand back and think about it, what good do polls serve? Not to the parties and the candidates - to the public. If we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen on election day, or if we are constantly being told what will happen, what difference does it make?

I can think of only one difference this constant polling might reasonably make: people thinking they already know the outcome of the election - so why vote.

No comments: