OTHER VOICES: Tending the rocky garden of democracy

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

– Winston S. Churchill (Nov. 11, 1947)

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With the dust having settled on the recent municipal elections as well as the referendum on electoral reform and with important decisions now being made by North Shore municipal councils, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the level of citizen and institutional democratic engagement on the North Shore.

For those of us who believe that democracy is a lifelong human garden project that takes careful planting, coaxing and attention, elections represent the bounty – or crop failure – of our democratic harvest. How citizens can meaningfully participate between elections is of course critical to a robust democracy too. But the number of citizens who take the time to get informed and exercise their democratic right – and responsibility – to vote lays the necessary groundwork for the legitimacy of any elected government.

So how did we do on the North Shore in 2018?

First some numbers on the municipal election.

In the City of North Vancouver municipal election, almost 34 per cent of eligible voters (12,789 of 38,163) cast a vote. This compares to 30 per cent in the 2014 election and an average of 23 per cent over the last several elections. So a modest increase.

In the District of North Vancouver, the turnout was 36 per cent (22,656 of 62,521 eligible voters). Turnout was 25 per cent in 2014 and an average of about 23 per cent over the prior several elections. So a good increase in DNV.

In the District of West Vancouver, almost 38.5 per cent of eligible voters (11,818 of 30,761) made it out to vote. This compares to 28 per cent in 2014 and an average of 30 per cent over the last several elections. Again, a modest but important increase.

So the good news is that the trend in all the municipalities moved in the right direction for voter turnout. That can be attributed at least partially to robust mayoral races and the efforts municipalities made to inform voters. And, for those who say their vote doesn’t make a difference, the mayoral race in West Vancouver was won by Mary-Ann Booth by a mere 21 votes, confirmed after a judicial recount. I’m sure Mark Sager and his supporters are wondering how they could have persuaded just 22 more voters to back his bid.

The bad news? On average over the three municipalities, almost two out of every three people did not feel the local municipal election was important enough to take the time to vote. Despite the fact that local governments and the decisions they make have major impacts on our daily lives in all sorts of significant ways. If aliens landed on the North Shore on an intergalactic mission to assess how societies make decisions across the galaxy and we told them that we are a proud democracy in which scarcely more than a third of the population votes, they’d likely jump quickly back into their space ship to find much more advanced democratic civilizations.

So what can we do to improve our democratic election harvest?

A year prior to the October 2018 elections, North Shore Community Resources began an initiative to meet with local government staff, councilors and mayors to urge them to design and deliver more robust, non-partisan voter outreach plans.

In addition to the print and digital ad campaigns that municipalities usually run at election time, we advocated for additional pathways that would include important face-to-face voter engagement. Getting an email or seeing an ad or a hard copy brochure in your mailbox is one thing, but having a real conversation with a real person is something quite different. As we told the councilors and civil staffers, municipalities need to be doing this work.

What was the municipal response to our efforts? Mixed at best.

One municipality provided a small but important grant to our Democracy Café program to hire voter outreach ambassadors to talk to people to encourage them to get informed and vote. The neighbouring municipalities declined to either do that important work themselves or fund us to do it. Even the municipality that did provide funding for our work would not let us give the people we talked to their voting brochure that they distributed to all households.

North Shore Community Resources also hosted an inter-agency network session (a group of social service agencies and local governments that share information) where we invited the municipal clerks/chief election officers from the three municipalities to share information and resources about how agency clients could learn about the election. Only one municipality participated at the meeting with another indicating that it would be inappropriate to attend.

It’s not all up to the municipalities to undertake outreach work to voters. We believe that each citizen shares a responsibility to encourage his and her fellow citizens to participate in elections and democracy generally. Moreover, those of us who work in the social services sector bear a responsibility to encourage our clients to get informed about their election options and vote, in a completely non-partisan way.

To that end, NSCR launched We Vote North Shore (wevotens.ca), a group of organizations who believe in the importance of citizen engagement and voting in elections with a commitment to distribute non-partisan voting information to increase the number of informed voters who show up to vote. We used inspirational voting stories to motivate citizens to vote and created postcards we handed out to the public with information about the municipal election, links to our We Vote North Shore website and the election pages for the municipalities and school districts.

That said, we hoped for more uptake from not-for-profit and other civil society organizations in spreading the word about the municipal election than we received. And we missed a great opportunity to reach out to Grade 12 students who graduated last June, almost all of whom were eligible to vote in the October 2018 municipal election. We are going to do that work this year in advance of the fall 2019 federal election.

All of this underlines that our democracy requires continual work to engage the citizenry. We can’t expect to reap much from the garden if we ignore it for years. Prior to elections, we have to have a comprehensive, non-partisan strategy with lots of garden tools and people to prepare and nurture the soil. And between elections, we must make sure that there are lots of meaningful opportunities to participate in local government decisions.

There is hope. The recent elections demonstrated that we can improve voter turnout. And with democracy, there is always a next time.

Murray Mollard is executive director at North Shore Community Resources.

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