Voters might care more if we gave them issues that matter
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.