Russell Wangersky: Voters are 50 shades of grey

Published on June 2, 2017

Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal politician John Finn talks with campaign workers Glenna Ash (left) and Madeline Cochrane in his campaign headquarters November 2015 after getting word he was declared the winner in Stephenville-Port au Port District.

©Frank Gale/The Western Star

It was startling in a Liberal campaign office in southern Nova Scotia during the last federal election — and just as startling in a Tory campaign headquarters in P.E.I.

Russell Wangersky
File photo

Looking around the quiet, busy rooms, I’d marvel at the demographic that was represented there. I’m no spring chicken, but by and large, most of the volunteers I met were older than me.

Sure, there were the young, snappily dressed keeners who looked like they’d stepped right straight out of a political science class, but for the most part, campaign offices felt like a quiet day at bingo.

It was déjà vu all over again, to quote Yogi Berra, watching events during the recent Conservative Party of Canada leadership campaign. This is a blunt generalization, but the only young people in the rooms seem to be those who personally expect to gain something from the process — youngsters invested with more than the usual partisan support.

Watching the campaign headquarters on television in Tuesday’s Nova Scotia election, it was the same kind of thing: the rooms were heavily skewed towards older people.

Sometimes, you watch a process and don’t see the pattern, until suddenly, you’re forced to realize that something — the video stores, the traditional television station, private radio — is falling off a demographic cliff.

Pensions and care for the elderly will become central issues for the government, and young voters will then care even less. And on and on it goes.

I think that traditional election campaigns are approaching that point.

Match the ages of those active in campaigns up with declining youth voting turnout, and suddenly a missing-voter time warp happening across the Atlantic region starts to make sense.

Nova Scotia, in the midst of an election rife with fractious issues this week, couldn’t seem to find people who cared.

There were 784,633 eligible voters: 400,898 actually cast ballots.

That meant 53.55 per cent of voters voted, the lowest turnout ever in that province, a turnout five full percentage points below turnout in the last election.

Now, hold on for a little math.

The Liberals in Nova Scotia ended up with 39.6 per cent of the vote, equivalent to somewhere around 159,000 votes.

But cast that against the total number of eligible voters, and you have the frightening picture that a party was actually able to win majority government with the active support of barely 20 per cent of the province’s eligible voters.

For every eligible voter who voted Liberal, four did not. And still, the Liberals are in full control of the province, its finances and its political direction.

You can argue that, if people choose not to vote, that’s their own fault, and they have to live with whatever sort of government is the result of their inaction.

But it’s not that simple.

What that means is that highly organized special interest groups can hijack elections; suddenly, groups like social conservatives can become the deciding factor in the electorate, punching far, far above their electoral weight and imposing their personal positions on everyone else. Galvanize the like-minded, and you can force the issue.

This is dangerous ground; you can end up with someone completely unsuitable for politics running a system they don’t even care about, and running it for their own self-interest.

But it also runs the risk of building a self-fulfilling endgame: if young voters don’t feel represented and choose not to vote, a disproportionate amount of power goes to those who do actually get out and cast their ballots.

If only older voters vote, governments will skew towards serving their needs; it’s a political kind of supply and demand. Pensions and care for the elderly will become central issues for the government, and young voters will then care even less. And on and on it goes.

If you don’t vote, you’ve failed the process and left the door open for ideologues.

If, as a politician, you can’t get the vote out, you’re failing, too.

Change has to come. Soon.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.