Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Importance of Voting

Andrea, Guthrie and I voted at the first advance poll on Wednesday evening.  We usually vote at advance polls - it gets the job done, and takes care of any concerns should Andrea have to go out of town unexpectedly, or if one of us gets sick.  There was a pretty decent crowd there, with small line-ups at each desk (one for every two wards).  The polling staff were, as always, pleasant and helpful, and they had two people right at the entrance, reminding people about the need for voter identification.

There was another advance poll on Saturday afternoon, and there are three more next week - Thursday and Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m., and Saturday from 1 to 8 p.m.  All of these are held at City Hall.  Then, of course, comes election day on the following Wednesday, October 24th, when voting is held at various poll locations across the city.  If you are unable to leave your home, you can arrange for a mobile poll by requesting one from city administration, and this year, there is even the option for mailing in a ballot - check the city web page for details on how to do that.

If you think that there seem to be more and more opportunities to vote than there used to be, you're right.  This is an effort to try to reduce the ever-decreasing voter turnout by making it more and more convenient for people. Civic elections tend to have even lower turnouts than provincial or federal elections, which is surprising, considering that you are more likely to be directly affected by decisions made at the municipal level - your water, sewer, garbage pick-up, snow plowing, street sweeping, are all affected by decisions made by the individuals that you elect to city council.  You're also far more likely to know your ward councillor - each ward contains about 5,000 people, which is far fewer than your MLA or MP represents.  And because we're local, it's also  easier to contact a municipal representative, and phone or email them when you have a question or a concern.

And yet, an amazing number of people do not take advantage of their best opportunity to influence local decisions.  I've heard all kinds of excuses over the years, but I don't buy any of them.

One excuse I've heard - no one really reflects all of my ideas and opinions.  Well, of course not.  Nobody but you can do that.  Even married couples can differ in their opinions (don't get Andrea started on daylight savings time - we don't agree on that one).  You aren't voting for someone because you expect to agree with him or her on all matters.  You are voting for someone whom you have to trust to take your thoughts and ideas, as well as input from many other sources, and make the best decisions possible.  It's more important to know that they take the responsibility seriously, and that they recognize that it is their decision, which shouldn't be directed by anyone else.

Another excuse - one vote doesn't make a difference.  Not very often, although a recent SUMA presidential election was decided by one vote, as was a local constituency vote for a party nominee.  And I recall a tie vote a few years back in a Newfoundland community where the winning mayor was decided upon by a draw out of a hat.  That's not the point - the point is to add your vote in with everyone else's, and the winner is the individual supported by the most individuals.

And one final excuse - I don't know enough about the issues.  Well, that one's your responsibility.  Local news media provide overviews of all candidates throughout the election, you've received pamphlets from at least some of the council candidates, and there's nothing stopping you from calling the phone numbers on those pamphlets and asking a few questions.  And discussing the issues and candidates with your friends, neighbours and co-workers can also help in the education process.

You should be asking candidates questions, either by phone, email, or if they happen to catch you at home when they're out knocking on doors, about why they think they're suited for this job that they're applying for.  Being on council is a serious responsibility, and you deserve to know as much as possible about their intentions.  Slogans, sound bites, and feel good messages just don't give you enough information about how well the candidate understands what they're getting into.

If they're already on council, ask them about their voting record.  What motions did they support, and why?  Where do they think council could be doing a better job?  Are they satisfied with the way that council keeps the public informed, or do they see areas for improvement?  I'm sure that you have your own questions for incumbents - I'd wonder if someone is 100% satisfied with the ways things have gone over the past three years, and I'd hope that they would have ideas on where things could be done better.

If you're talking to someone without any council experience, you should have even more questions, because for new members of council, it's a very steep learning curve that they should already be trying to get ahead of.  For example, have they ever been to a council meeting?  Have they reviewed agendas, and do they understand how council meetings are conducted?  Did they review the budget that was passed this year?  Where would they have spent less?  Where would they have spent more?  Do they know what the city debt level is?  What ideas do they have to reduce this?

Some issues come up repeatedly.  Do they have new ideas on how to reduce crime levels, or revitalize downtown?  Do they have ideas on where a second bridge should be built, and why?  Are they satisfied with current levels of road maintenance, or the cost to the taxpayer for various city facilities?  If not, what suggestions do they have?

In the end, your vote is your decision, and no one else's.  To me, that's one of the great things about democracy - once you're standing behind the cardboard dividers, pencil and ballots in hand, it's all up to you.  If you've already voted, thank you.  If you haven't voted yet, please do.  The more people who take the time to educate themselves about the options and then vote, the more likely we are to end up with a strong group of people who can collectively take on the challenges that face this next council.  I sincerely hope that the voters of Ward 3 decide once again that they want me to represent them in these challenges - I'm looking forward to it.

"A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends on the character of the user." - Theodore Roosevelt

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