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John Allemang

Voting: It's messy and imperfect, but it's all we've got Add to ...

Democracy is a sweet thing, from afar. The clamouring, demanding voice of the people rises from the Cairo square and we feel a kinship with the crowd at the most basic emotional level: Your destiny lies in your hands, and that's the best challenge to the power-brokers who think they know best.

It amazes us every time we see people risking death and disorder to achieve the democratic idea somewhere else. Because we know that something so beautiful can't remain so simple and uplifting: In our world, all that cheering turns into fine and pompous words about the 60 per cent of the electorate who have spoken. And all that excitement finds its end in the scratched X on a slip of paper that bears a silent and barely visible witness to power's procession.

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Many Canadians don't vote. Disengagement is its own kind of preference, but whether exercised as an act of apathy, or flaunted as an expression of aversion, it's too easy. And democracy is about hard choices, chaste idealism prodded toward too-knowing calculation, the childish luxury of opinion forced into the clarity of a grown-up choice.

Voting is a compromise. And maybe there's something dirty about it that offends people who seek a purity of the Platonic kind. Wallowing in the sentimental spirit of our wide-eyed democratic ideals, we may actually have to defile ourselves.

And still we get on with it. Pundits proclaim that the election is about a single issue, but voters can't reduce it to such a fine distillation. Suppose it's all about the economy: Are we voting for ourselves, or for others? I may be impoverishing my children by leaning one way in my choice, but then again I may not want my children to live in a Darwinian world of winners and losers, even if I remain prosperous. And suppose I prefer to grow richer rather than poorer: Even if I'm inclined to opt for cynical self-interest (albeit with some ballot-box remorse), do I want to do it in the company of politicians who value money so aggressively?

Or maybe the chatter about the economy is just a kind of election code. It's a choice between safety and risk - the known and the unknown. It's a psychological test, the kind of challenge you issue to your democratic psyche every time you approach the ballot box and try to undo someone's orthodoxies. But if I'm going to vote for change, do I really know this guy, or am I just buying into some image? The candidate whose aura of inclusiveness is based on the fact that he managed to get the busloads of Sikh seniors to push him over the top for the nomination? Or do I vote for the party, even though the assistant restaurant manager it fielded was on vacation during the entire campaign, little knowing that her party was on the rise?

When the parties take our vote for granted at the local level, they refuse to acknowledge the Egyptian eagerness for change. So we'll raise our democratic ideals to the level of the leader, finding virtue in one of them by adding up the flaws of the others. Or we'll vote for the party, hoping that they have enough spine to live up to their promises and not bend to the betrayals of governing, as they invariably do. But at the ballot box at least, there still can be some purity of intent, before Parliament's reality has a chance to sink in.

And if all else fails, there's the fallback of the polling place itself: It may not be a Cairo square, and the status quo may be safely intact a day later. But the sight of all those other voters exercising their franchise revives the elusive spirit of community, the sense that there's still some idealism, however bloodied, to be found among the people.

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