Vot­ers might care more if we gave them is­sues that mat­ter

Times Colonist - - Connection­s - JACK KNOX

Grim Novem­ber day, just right for pon­der­ing the big ques­tions of life, like “If we’re go­ing to spend $1.2 bil­lion on a sewage treat­ment sys­tem that might or might not work, what’s it go­ing to cost to keep the float­ing feet off the beach?”

That is, should we be string­ing nets across the har­bour mouth, like they do to keep out sharks and sub­marines? Pay­ing a bounty to an­glers with dip nets?

Too bad that won’t be on the bal­lot Satur­day. If Vic­to­ri­ans got to vote on spe­cific ques­tions, as they do in the U.S. and as they used to do reg­u­larly around here, peo­ple might ac­tu­ally turn out for their lo­cal elec­tions.

That’s the ar­gu­ment Ross Crock­ford makes on his Un­known Vic­to­ria web­site, un­known­vic­to­ria.blogspot.com.

Crock­ford notes that up un­til 1973, Vic­to­ria vot­ers al­most al­ways an­swered one or more ref­er­en­dum ques­tions dur­ing lo­cal elec­tions (and this in an era when we trooped to the polls ev­ery year, as op­posed to ev­ery three, as is now the case). “Our lo­cal gov­ern­ments once en­trusted weighty is­sues to vot­ers. Now they don’t. Should we be sur­prised that turnouts are so low?”

Among his ex­am­ples of di­rect democ­racy:

1920 — Vic­to­ri­ans ap­proved constructi­on of the blue bridge.

1956 — Oak Bay res­i­dents banned the sale of raw milk.

1958 — Vic­to­ri­ans voted 2-1 in favour of amal­ga­ma­tion with Saanich, but Saanich re­jected the idea by a sim­i­lar mar­gin.

1961 — Saanich vot­ers ap­proved the sale of beer by the glass.

1981 — Vic­to­ria voted for Sun­day shop­ping. (Me, I’m still fight­ing that one, but sus­pect it’s a lost cause.)

Satur­day will see a smat­ter­ing of plebiscite­s and ref­er­en­dums on a few cap­i­tal re­gion bal­lots, none of them earth-shak­ing in na­ture. There’s a ques­tion about rais­ing $50,000 a year for the Sooke mu­seum, an­other about bor­row­ing $2.1 mil­lion to up­grade waste dis­posal on Salt­spring. Cen­tral Saanich has a slew of ques­tions that ba­si­cally come down to ask­ing vot­ers if they want to pay more taxes to build stuff. Lang­ford and Col­wood have a moth­er­hood­ish ques­tion about com­muter rail. Metchosini­tes will be asked if they want to keep court­ing East Sooke.

But there’s noth­ing like the kind of is­sues put to our Amer­i­can neigh­bours last week. Here are a few of Crock­ford’s ex­am­ples:

Mas­sachusetts de­crim­i­nal­ized pos­ses­sion of up to an ounce of mar­i­juana, the 12th state to move in that di­rec­tion.

Ohio put a ceil­ing on pay­day-loan in­ter­est rates.

Wash­ing­ton vot­ers ap­proved as­sisted sui­cide.

Note that this last ques­tion was a voter-driven ini­tia­tive forced onto the bal­lot by mem­bers of the pub­lic, not a ref­er­en­dum ad­vanced by gov­ern­ment. That’s the way they de­cide things down there. Call it democ­racy on steroids.

It can have its draw­backs, though, when the ma­jor­ity gets to pass judg­ment on the mi­nor­ity, or at least to place self-in­ter­est over the greater good. Cal­i­for­ni­ans voted down gay mar­riage last week. Right across the strait from Vic­to­ria, the peo­ple of Clal­lam County turned down more money for school com­put­ers — a re­flec­tion of the low num­ber of house­holds with school-age chil­dren. Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries has been in a fund­ing cri­sis ever since vot­ers in that state — most of whom don’t ride the fer­ries — deep­sixed a ve­hi­cle tax that used to fund the sys­tem.

But can you imag­ine the turnout if we had de­ci­sion­mak­ing abil­ity put di­rectly in our hands?

How about a vote on a $20per-house­hold levy to fund af­ford­able hous­ing, asks Crock­ford. How about rewrit­ing the rules to al­low com­mer­cial events in Bea­con Hill Park? How about (and here’s a ques­tion your lo­cal coun­cil­lors will never let you an­swer) amal­ga­ma­tion?

It isn’t voter ap­a­thy that is at the root of our lousy voter turnout. It’s dis­con­nec­tion.

With 266 candidates crowd­ing lo­cal bal­lots, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble for vot­ers to make an in­formed de­ci­sion, so they just stay home.

But give peo­ple the chance to an­swer ques­tions they ac­tu­ally care about, they’ll take it.

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