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More participants make for a much better democracy

What does it mean to be a good citizen? Ask a hundred people, get a hundred different answers.

Some people will argue the Internet and social media have ushered in a new era of citizen engagement. It’s certainly helped, as in the case of the Arab Spring and other popular uprisings.

Electronic devices allowed decentralized groups and individuals to communicate, organize, react in a timely fashion and stay one step ahead of authorities. We’ve seen dictators topple from power. That’s great. But the real test will be what kind of governments emerge from the ruins of the fallen despots. Will new power-mongers emerge, as in revolutions elsewhere? Will some nominally democratic movements peter off into new authoritarian regimes? Even if those countries emulate governments in the West, you certainly can’t argue that we’re the end-all and be-all of democracy, let alone empowered.

Most of us can’t be bothered to get involved. Half of us can’t even muster enough energy to spend five minutes every four years casting a ballot.

With that in mind, Woolwich and Wellesley this week waded into the issue of Internet and telephone voting, the former deferring a decision and the latter embracing the change. Both municipalities are hoping a new system will increase voter turnout.

Numbers have generally decreased for all elections. Municipal elections, typically devoid of leadership and hot-button issues, tend to see the lowest turnouts, sometimes lower than 20 per cent. Local, provincial or federal, turnout has generally been declining.

That’s especially true with younger people, precisely the audience most likely to embrace technology … though it remains to be seen if that would translate when it comes to voting, as that would mean at least some level of awareness, and even engagement.

Our electronic devices might be a gateway to greater involvement, recent studies indicate. This applies to both elections (online voting, for instance) and the use of social media as way of increasing overall participation in governance. Canadians would be more engaged in conversations on government policy, for instance, if there were ways to take part online.

Not surprisingly, a younger demographic is most influenced by social media in terms of their perception of elected officials.

Politicians have taken in that message, though to date social media has been another tool for getting out the message, not for fostering generally participative democracy.

Thus far, the technology has been little more than another public relations tool. As something that helps us move towards a true democracy, it remains only a theory.

Real voter engagement is likely going to require reforms not only to the electoral process – recently nixed by the Trudeau government – but an overhaul of the generally corrupt system of governance. The likes of an honesty-in-politics law and much more demanding ethical rules – with severe penalties for lying and poor governance – would restore the public’s faith in the system. Right now, people don’t believe in the system or the politicians, so it’s much easier to disengage.

Feeling like our votes matter might actually prompt more of us to cast a ballot, in person, online or whatever form of technology works.

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