(Note: The following opinion/editorial was submitted by Dr. Michael Boda on September 13, 2019 to CBC Saskatchewan, Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix)
As we enter Democracy Week in Canada (September 15-21), we’re reminded of the United Nations’ declaration of democracy as a “universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.” At the same time, though, we really can’t escape the feeling that democracy has lost some of its luster in recent years—something we were reminded of by The Economist earlier this month in its editorial titled “Cynicism is gnawing at Western Democracies.”
Some might suggest this doesn’t really apply to Saskatchewan, that there are signs of optimism that counter this perspective. In the 2015 Federal Election, for example, voter turnout in the province was above the national average at 67.6 percent. This placed Saskatchewan as the sixth highest among all provinces and territories in Canada. In addition, community spirit and involvement has always been central to our jurisdiction. For this reason, according to Statistics Canada (2013), Saskatchewan has maintained the highest rate of volunteerism of all Canadian provinces.
But sadly there is evidence that this cynicism has been seeping into Saskatchewan’s culture. In 1982, 79.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the provincial general election. By 2016, that number had dropped to 53.5 percent. While almost 12,000 citizens across the province served as election workers and officials in 2016, almost a half of returning officers reported difficulty in recruiting them. When it comes to provincial elections, we have clearly struggled in recent years.
Why then is the province struggling when it comes to one of the most important tenets of democracy—its provincial general elections? Certainly our voters face competing priorities. Work and family life make constant demands on our time. And perhaps we have begun to take our success with democracy in Saskatchewan for granted. Some may be asking why their vote even matters when we’ve had governments come and go without incident. In reality, The Economist may be at least partially right in arguing that cynicism is present now more than ever in Western democracies, and that includes Saskatchewan.
The challenge of cynicism can’t be addressed unless we consider how each of us can contribute—today and moving forward—to a community that is larger than us as individuals. In an electoral context, residents eligible to vote need to view casting their ballot as a duty of citizenship and a celebration of Saskatchewan’s democratic heritage—whether in a federal, provincial or local election.
This could involve serving as an election worker in order to facilitate and sustain democratic elections, thereby modelling our democratic commitment to others, young and old. It could involve encouraging voting among friends and family, bringing our children with us when we vote, and even wearing an “I Voted” sticker on Election Day.
It could mean encouraging civil and open discussion with respect to both the importance of voting and the important public issues of the day. It is this “democratic activity” that will encourage other community members to see voting as the means to further their aspirations and as a vital expression of their belonging to Saskatchewan.
As the province’s Chief Electoral Officer, there are things that I can do in leading Elections Saskatchewan, the province’s independent, non-partisan election management body, to address this challenge as well. I can continue to follow through on a commitment to remove barriers to participation in the democratic process. I can work to make the process of voting easier and more efficient by modernizing voting in a prudent and responsible way. And, I can support civic education programs for the voters of tomorrow to ensure that they too see voting as a central element of their identity as citizens.
If democracy is the collective heritage of the people of Saskatchewan and The Economist has accurately described a cynicism that is gnawing away at our democracy, what could you do to address the problem? Together, we can ensure that our democratic traditions remain vital and meaningful, but it begins with you.
Dr. Michael Boda has been Saskatchewan’s Chief Electoral Officer since 2012. He oversees and regulates provincial electoral events.