Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada

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Apathy is one of the many perils to our democracy

As with citizens in municipalities across the province, township residents will go to the polls on October 22, if they haven’t voted already via electronic options available since last week.

Well, they’ll have the option of doing so. If past results are any indication, only a third will exercise their franchise.

If you haven’t done so, the first order of business will be assessing the hopefuls. Unlike federal and provincial elections, there are no party affiliations, no partisan campaigning, no issues of universal import, no lobby groups, no 24-hour television coverage. Residents often have little exposure to incumbents, let alone newcomers to the fray. Short of having one knock on your door, getting to know the candidates will involve some work, including attending a candidates’ forum or following newspaper coverage.

Rarely in local elections are there galvanizing issues that grip the public, so it takes some effort to get out and vote, let alone get informed.

Despite the fact local governments have the most direct impact on our day-to-day lives, we still don’t seem to take note – only about a quarter of eligible voters in the province will bother to cast a ballot.

Such apathy is not aided, of course, by the lack of issues to grab the public’s attention. That there isn’t a full slate of candidates in either Woolwich or Wellesley won’t likely help the situation.

In Woolwich, voters are selecting two from among three candidates running in Ward 1, while Ward 2 residents will pick a new councillor from among the two running for the seat.

In Wellesley, there is a battle for mayor, meaning township-wide voting, while at the ward level, only Ward 2 and Ward 3 is up for grabs.

We’ll see if electronic voting, which extended the timeframe by two weeks, has an impact on voter turnout, though a miracle surge seems unlikely.

If turnout numbers that dropped to twice that number at the federal level prompted talks of mandatory voting in the past decade, municipal elections could really use the help.

The merits of compulsory voting are clear: more people show up. The practice is in place in some two dozen countries. On a worldwide average, participation rated top 80 per cent in countries that enforce mandatory voting. Even countries which have compulsory voting laws but do not enforce penalties have voter turnout in the 60 to 70 per cent range, which is higher than in Canada.

Of course, compelling people to vote – say, by issuing a fine if they don’t show up – doesn’t mean they’ll take the time to study the issues and get to know the candidates. And to work fairly, the system would have to account for more declined and spoiled ballots. A none-of-the-above option would also be helpful, even if that “candidate” ended up with a majority. In fact, that would be helpful, making for a better class of politicians next time around.

For today, however, most of us could set a better example by committing to show up at the polls October 22.

Municipal politicians have a significant impact on your lives – they look after the roads you drive on, the parks you use, services such as water and sewage and they set your property tax rates. Their decisions affect the very community where you live – certainly that merits taking a bit of time to make an informed choice and allocating a few minutes to marking an electronic “X.”

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