Friday, June 5, 2009

Apathy and Participation - Questions and Answers (maybe)

Well, yesterday I travelled from Holland to Cork - overnighted and came home to Connemara to vote in European and local elections.

I dont expect others to go to those lengths, but there is a common attitude that if you dont vote, then dont complain.

One thing that was dissapointing was my local polling station is across the road from a pub.
I was tired after so much travel, so after voting I went in for a coffee.

There were a lot of people there, mostly young, getting drunk - had been there all day, and could not be bothered to cross a two lane country road and vote.

I find that very frustrating.

It is obvious that the only long term solution to voter apathy is education.
But at a time when inner cities have a voter turnout as low as 19% there needs to be a more proactive and radical short term solution.

I think there are two ways to improve democratic participation in the short term.

One is to make voting compulary, with a small fine if you dont vote - e.g 50 Euro or something of that nature, I believe this system is used in Austria and Belgium.
One wonders how many people who dont vote 'on principle' would then stay away from the polling stations.

The other method - which I think would be better - is a reward system.

You get far more with a carrot than with a stick.

Every week thousands of people willingly pay money to enter the Irish National lottery.
The vast majority will not recoup their stake - and know this.

From the national lottery several millions are used to help out on public projects like sport, arts and culture.

We average a national vote or election roughly every 2.5 years between local, national, european, presidential and referenda.

So we set aside - say a million Euro from lottery funding for each election, in a program to encourage participation in the democratic process. It costs the state nothing.

All a person needs to do to qualify is turn up at the polling station, take their ballot and do what they want with it. They can vote, they can spoil the ballot, they can put it in the box blank if they wish - but by turning up at the station, they qualify to potentially win by lottery a small prize, say 50 or 100 Euro.

All anyone would need to do is participate, and your name goes in a draw. No one is forced to vote but everyone is certainly encouraged to do so.

I really think that this would raise the turnout to a very high level - your chances of winning are quite high.

Some purists believe that this is bribing the electorate, that it somehow cheapens the process, but it seems our education system has failed to indoctrinate the importance of participation in a democracy - our politicians have certainly failed to inspire.

There have been few figures in recent times who have had that ability, in Ireland the late, lamented Tony Gregory is the only one who springs to mind.

Those who are purists could even decline to be entered for the draw.

So when the politicians speak of participation, and the importance of voting, why dont they do something more proactive about it.

In a cynical sense I do understand that in some ways politicians dont really care about apathy, the people voting are generally politically minded, so it maintains the status quo.

They do not want new, unpredictable voters. Apathy is one of the allies of stagnation.

There may also be a fear in the larger parties that this new dynamic will alter carefully calculated campaigns.

If the turnout in this election is higher than normal, then it is only because of the fact people are so angry at the current administrations failures.

I have spoken with many voters who are voting against the current Government as opposed to voting for the opposition or on local issues.

I think this has been the most negative election I have witnessed.
It is time for a change, but its also the time to change the way we do do things in our democracy.
Radical solutions such as a positive prize fund is one way.

Lowering the voting age to 16 to engage voters at a younger age is another option.

Ireland really needs to look at improving the way our postal voting system works for people working away, the UK's system is far better.

Another thing we could consider is a list system for national elections, breaking away from constituancy politics at a national level.

This essentially means that I could vote for a candidate in Cork if I consider that person to be the best for a job that is done at a national level.

Yes this system has potential flaws, but when one looks at some of the local patronage and cronyism at a local level, it certainly begins to look attractive.

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