This fall, voters have a lot on their minds and even more on their task lists. The Liberals called an election while wildfires consumed large parts of the western provinces and while the risk of a fourth COVID-19 wave ran rampant ─ after the ongoing emotional and economic hardships of 18 months of pandemic living. Will these realities make showing up to polling booths on Sept. 20 a priority for some citizens? Probably not.

A majority of Canadians will vote, but if we focus policy efforts on those who tend to skip the polling stations, our efforts will benefit all.

We can look to the 2019 federal election for direction. After that election, Statistics Canada asked Canadians who did not vote why they did not cast their ballots. Citizens reported several reasons, including lack of information (1.1 per cent) or not knowing who to vote for (1.8 per cent.) But by far the majority replied that they were too busy to vote (45.9 per cent) or were not interested in politics (34.6 per cent.) A post-election poll by the Campaign Research firm also found the campaigns left many people “irritated” by the experience. More than 65 per cent reported feeling irritated, uninterested, or alienated by the federal campaign. Irritation is not a feeling I want associated with the most basic democratic act.

Being too busy, not interested and irritated during the writ period are three areas we need to focus on to engage citizens and to help them feel inspired to take part in our democracy.

Make it easier

Personal freedoms are a fundamental value of our liberal democracy. Citizens have the choice to opt out of participating. Thus, we should focus on making voting easier to opt into but not mandatory. We should act in ways that will nudge, not force, people to the voting booth.

Nudge theory, from the work of Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and others, provides a policy framework. A nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates.”

A first nudge would be to move elections days to a weekend. Making election day a national holiday is often mentioned, but that may impact some employers and employees more than others. Also, all levels of elections, from federal to provincial to municipal, should follow the same rules. Every election matters, so making some a holiday while others are not would send the message that some elections are more important than others, which is not the case.

Moving elections to a Saturday or Sunday would be a first step to making it easier for citizens to participate. It would directly nudge those who feel too busy to vote on a weekday.

For many, the time it takes to show up, stand in line and cast a ballot does not feel burdensome. For others, it adds complications to their lives that we can address. For example, offering child-minding services at polling stations would make it easier for parents, and it would introduce children at a young age to the ritual of the vote. Providing free transit on election days would make it more affordable and more likely to convince some people to vote. More funding to increase onsite interpreters and materials in multiple languages would go a long way to making sure that Canada’s diverse communities feel more welcomed and supported. Making sure vote-on-campus initiatives are not abandoned would also nudge first-time voters.

Elections Canada already offers advance polling days and mail-in ballots. It is also doing the policy work to explore options for online voting. An online platform would make it easier for those with the access and digital literacy to vote. However, our nudges also need to inspire the electorate and motivate them to pause daily life and connect with the ritual of rebirth for our democracy. Here are some ways we can do this.

Make it joyful

From our work at the Simon Fraser University Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue evaluating what unlocks engagement in neighbourhood change, with small grant opportunities, we found individuals were motivated when they could connect issues they cared about to things and activities that brought them joy. These findings support the importance of positive emotions in organizing and participating in our communities. We need to find ways to connect election day to what gives people joy.

Heading to a polling booth is a highly monitored process with several prohibitions (which have valid reasons), but it also makes voting a cold and alienating experience for many. For newcomers and those whose social groups have been poorly treated by a government in the past, voting feels too much like another bureaucratic barrier and harmful procedure they must endure rather than a celebration of democratic participation.

We need to review our policies around polling location procedures and fears about imparting biases. For example, let’s have faith in people’s convictions and allow poll workers wear jeans to signal a more casual voting atmosphere, without fear that an ubiquitous colour that is also the colour of a political party will impact votes.

We’ve swung too far in our paranoia and protection of the fair voting process and lost the connections between voting, belonging and active community participation. We can address our rules about the physical area around a polling station to remind ourselves that voting should be about being part of a community and our civic friendships. Election day should be an opportunity for street festivals ─ celebrations with music and food that reflect the electorate and give people a reason to linger and bask in their democratic rights.

Let residents’ associations, community leaders and local constituency associations find ways to connect voting with what brings joy – not irritation – to their local communities.

Make it valuable

There is only so much Elections Canada can do to make voting feel valuable to the electorate. Candidates, parties and local constituency organizations need to do more to take the lead.

We need to be honest. Many Canadians do not find elections “fun” and do not make a hobby out of politics. As Robert Talisse reminds us, democracy is a way to “foster valuable human relationships and lives that are devoted, collectively and individually, to meaningful projects that lie beyond the struggle of politics.”

For most people, elections are not and never will be central to their day-to-day lives. The gamification of elections is effective for rallying bases but leaves others alienated. Instead, campaigns need to embody the fact that elections are held for a very particular purpose: to guide how governments will direct consensus-making efforts for policy decisions that affect the masses for the next few years. Elections ask citizens: “Who do you want to lead that process, and in what direction do you want them to head?” That’s it.

Party affiliations are not our identities, and elections are not sports championships. Leaders and parties need to reflect those facts. Rather than grandiose campaign promises, the electorate is looking for honest, vulnerable conversations about the immense challenges we are facing. They want to hear leaders talk about the barriers and opportunities that the various party approaches identify for tackling them. To create those conversations, the media and campaigners will have to step up.

It is time to introduce a different narrative into our elections. Making it easier to choose to vote, promoting joyful associations with election day, and holding our campaigns to realistic boundaries are clear options to enable us to shift the trend of democratic recession. We need only to nudge ourselves into action.

This article is part of the How can we improve the elections process special feature. 

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Jennifer Wolowic
Jennifer Wolowic, PhD, leads the Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative at the Simon Fraser University Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Its work focuses on how to change local, everyday experiences of democracy.

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