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Editorial: Make it mandatory

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Apathy is boring. It also poses a danger to democracy and our cherished rights and freedoms. There is a growing concern about weakening voter participation, and although there is a solution, it’s a controversial one.

SaltWire columnist Russell Wangersky wrote last week that the recent Nova Scotia election turnout was especially alarming. Less than 54 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot — an all-time low. Turnout in some metro Halifax districts hovered at around 40 per cent in an election that supposedly had high voter interest involving education and health issues.

The Liberals ended up with 39.6 per cent of the vote, but the party was able to form a majority government with barely 20 per cent support from eligible voters.

The thrust of Wangersky’s argument? With increased voter apathy, special interest groups can hijack elections and impose their personal positions on everyone else.

Former Charlottetown councillor Bruce MacIsaac wrote an article this week voicing his concern about the low turnout in P.E.I.’s plebiscite on electoral reform and why a second vote is needed to select a system supported by a majority of Islanders.

In last fall’s plebiscite, a disappointing 35 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Had government honoured the vote, the decision to change the way Islanders elect legislators would have been determined by 19 per cent of eligible voters.

There is a cure for voter apathy — mandatory voting. This doesn’t break new ground since more than 20 countries already make voting compulsory, including Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Brazil and Greece. Compulsory voting imposes penalties — usually fines — on citizens who fail to vote in official elections.

Citizens of democracies are required to do many other things in the interest of the public good. We pay taxes to maintain essential public services, we register our vehicles, get a driver’s licence and serve on juries.

There is another benefit to compulsory voting. It would cripple political party machines that get out their diehard supporters and skew the results. The ruling party usually has the most resources to get supporters to the polling booths. Mandatory voting would give power back to the people.

Those opposed will argue that the right to vote includes the right not to vote.

But since apathetic voters pose a danger to a democracy, isn’t it best to have engaged members of the electorate make the decisions?

The results of recent elections in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, where many districts were decided by razor-thin margins, show that every vote is important and every vote does count.

Casting a vote is a cherished right and should be an essential civic duty of every citizen in a free democracy.

It’s time to become part of the solution to voter apathy, instead of being part of the problem.

If not, mandatory voting might be the only option remaining.

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