Toronto Star

Online voting is key to ending election apathy


For democracy in Ontario, the money has never been better: outsiders tripled their spending in the 2011 election campaign while the old-line parties maxed out on their corporate donations.

Measured by cash flow, it is the best of times. Measured by people flow, it is the worst of times.

Voter turnout keeps spiralling downward, dipping below 50 per cent for the first time ever in the past election.

You can do the math: ever more money chasing ever fewer voters.

How do we reverse the flow of voters versus dollars? Can we turn the clock back to a time when more people viewed voting as their civic duty, taking time off work to line up at their local polling booth?

No, you can’t go back in time. People don’t have as much spare time anymore. And they expect our democracy to get with the times.

That’s why the latest report from Ontario’s chief electoral officer is so depressing. His proposed panacea for our ailing democracy — move voting day to Sunday — completely misses the point about why people aren’t bothering to cast their ballots anymore.

You can extend the hours (as we have in recent elections), you can give people three hours off work, you can make polling booths more accessible, you can even tinker with the day of the week. But you’re still asking people to stand in line and stuff a folded paper ballot into a big box, the same way we used to line up at the bank to get our passbooks updated.

When was the last time you stood in a bank lineup to withdraw cash from a teller? Ever seen a young person do it?

If Elections Ontario wants to restore democratic participat­ion to a healthier level in the province, it needs to raise its game. That means doing what the banks do — serving customers in the way they want to be served, in their own time, on their own terms, without lineups.

That means online voting. If it’s safe to entrust our cash savings to the Internet — with all the security features now available — it’s long past time to promote democratic outreach in Ontario’s cyberspace. I can’t think of a better way to engage young people, and busy people, and distracted people, short of making voting mandatory.

Our chief electoral officer is so far behind the digital times that he can’t see the solution staring him in the computer screen. That’s because his own Elections Ontario website is an anachronis­m — muddled, befuddled, inaccessib­le and inscrutabl­e.

Its slow-motion home page proclaims, “We make voting easy.” It is a hollow boast, best rephrased as, “We keep voting frozen in time.”

All that said, his old-fashioned paper report makes a valid (if obvious) point about the surge in spending by third parties — primarily the big unions — who now outspend most other political parties. Their advertisin­g campaigns tripled to $6.7 million in 2011 compared with the previous election, with no limits on their spending.

In practical terms, this hurts the Tories most. The unions bankroll negative advertisin­g that frames Tory Leader Tim Hudak as a captive of Bay St. It makes for a lopsided playing field.

Many other provinces, and the federal Parliament, impose limits, and so should Ontario. But the Liberals and New Democrats are loath to rein in the unions, preferring to profit from the perennial blitz of negativity unleashed on their shared nemesis.

A bigger question is when all three parties will follow Ottawa’s lead by imposing reasonable political contributi­on limits for individual­s, unions and corpo- rations. Ontario remains a no-holdsbarre­d electoral backwater where labour and big business can exploit an annual limit of $16,500 in combined donations to a party, its candidates and riding associatio­ns. In an election year, they can double that amount.

Federally, corporate and union donations are banned outright. Individual contributi­ons are limited to $1,200.

The recent Liberal leadership that anointed Kathleen Wynne premier exposed other scandalous gaps in Ontario: there is no fundraisin­g limit whatever for party campaigns. (The Liberals voluntaril­y imposed a $500,000 spending limit, but goodness knows how the excess funds are being disposed of.) Federally, leadership contributi­ons are limited to $1,200.

Don’t expect Wynne to show any leadership on electoral reform anytime soon. Anytime she’s asked, the former Liberal campaign co-chair waxes eloquent about how different people contribute in different ways to our wondrous democracy.

Some by licking envelopes, I suppose. Others by stuffing envelopes with cash. Martin Regg Cohn’s provincial affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.,

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