Wake me up when it’s over!

By Casey Cosgrove

BURLINGTON, ON September 28, 2011  – Is it just my imagination, or does there seem to be a noticeable lack of interest in Burlington over the coming provincial election ?  Naturally, those working on a campaign, directly for a candidate, or as advocates for a specific issue (like the hospital or mid-peninsula highway) probably won’t see it this way as the city serves as a daily campaign battleground until October 6th.

The mainstream media is covering the election as usual, but on the ground here in Burlington, there seems to be very little buzz.  One usual predictor of interest – lawn signs – also tells the story.  Take a drive through the city and you will see relatively few lawn signs staked into the grass Burlington.

A  reading of local newspapers, blogs, campaign brochures, and discussing the coming election with neighbours, friends, and a network of young families in Burlington in recent weeks, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the level of interest among Joe Voter.

I conducted a small, informal survey with 41 busy, working, middle-income individuals, mostly commuters, and most with school-aged children.  These folks are common working Burlington families – a demographic each of the political platforms I have read appear to be targeting on paper.   Of the 41 respondents, 26 will vote in the Burlington riding, while 15 (who live in the Orchard or Millcroft) will vote in the Halton riding.  All are Burlingtonians, but none described themselves as politically ‘active’, or are involved in any of the campaigns under way in either riding.

I asked five basic questions.

 1- Will you be voting in the coming election? 

2 – If you are voting, have you decided whom you will vote for?

3 – How will you determine who will get your vote? (local candidate, party itself,

      party leader, party platform, a combination, a specific issue, or other).

4 – Have you seen a candidate at your doorstep yet?  Does that matter to you?

5 – If you are not voting, have not decided, or are reluctant to vote, why is that?

 19 of 41 respondents (less than 50%) said they will definitely be voting in the coming election.  12 said they might, while 10 said that they won’t bother to vote.  Interestingly, 14 of the 19 who will be voting have already decided whom they will be voting for.

Of the 19 sure voters,

10 said they vote for the party itself,

2 on particular issue,

3 for the local candidate,

1 the party platform,

2 the party leader, and

 3 indicated it was a combination of all of the above.

 Of the 41 respondents, only 1 has seen a candidate show up at their door.  When asked whether this mattered to them, 16 said they’d  like the chance to talk to candidates while 25 said it does not matter to them if a candidate shows up at their door.  Some even stated that they would prefer if they did not see a candidate.   It is worth mentioning that only two respondents were seniors, the rest were younger families, which may better explain this particular result.

As you might guess, the most intriguing, and disturbing responses were to the last question – ‘if you are not voting, have not decided, or are reluctant to vote, why is that?  The responses to this question included

 ‘why bother, they break their promises anyway?’,

 ‘I cannot tell the difference between them’,

 ‘my vote wont count in Burlington anyway’,

‘I do not trust any of them’,

‘I do not feel informed enough to vote’,

‘I do not like politics’,

‘I do not know the options well enough’,

‘there is no issue that I feel particularly strongly about’,

‘I waited 2 hours last election’ and

‘they are all the same, so I do not care who wins’.

 We often focus on the percentage of people that do not vote, but we spend little time analyzing this reluctance or refusal to participate in this

Platforms are full of smoke and mirrors, and are like moving targets. There are plenty of reasons to be disillusions and even disgusted with elements of our electoral process.

democratic right.  It seems clear that many people in Burlington are feeling a lack of engagement, a lack of trust, and a feeling that their vote does not matter.  Why is this?  Are those that do not vote just plain lazy and unappreciative of this right that was fought for?

Perhaps a few, but many have good reason to be fed up.  Election promises are often made and broken. Partisan ‘spin’ has become a prime tactic in campaigns.  Loca

l candidates often ‘hide’ behind the leader, not sharing much about their own credentials and vision.

Once elected, representatives are basically forced to toe the party line, or else they can expect to get comfortable in the backbenches. A vote for a truly independent thinker may be a ‘lost leader’ if that party ends up governing.

Elections seem to be used as much to confuse people as to bring clarity, as the lines between the existing parties have blurred substantially, fighting for a piece of the ‘middle’.  Aspiring candidates spend much of their time obsessing about those in power, rather than trying to engage people with their own ideas and vision.

Platforms are full of smoke and mirrors, and are like moving targets.  There are plenty of reasons to be disillusions and even disgusted with elements of our electoral process.  Getting elected is the  prime goal of those campaigning so there will be no acknowledging these issues during a campaign.  Smile, stay on message, disregard and poke holes in the opponents platform and ideas. Just win.

I am among those that have never missed an opportunity to vote.  I am sometimes offended during elections, and I don’t always have a clear choice that I feel great about, but I always vote.  I care enough to find something I feel strongly enough to vote for.  This is not simply about getting people to cast a vote.

Rather than berating people for not exercising their right to vote, perhaps we should spend more time engaging citizens, exploring things that they do care about, and making them feel heard.  If one really cares about something, and feels ‘heard’, they will vote every time, guaranteed.


Casey Cosgrove has lived for all but five of his many years in Burlington where he has been active in the community.  He ran as  city Councillor in the 2006 municipal election. He  teaches leadership a the University of Guelph and is on leave as a Director of the Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy.




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