Squamish city council candidate and professional stunt man Peter Kent wants to increase voter turnout in the upcoming municipal election. So much so that he has promised to set himself on fire in the middle of a Squamish street if voter turnout surpasses the 39.2 per cent of the 2011 election. Mr. Kent, whose film credits include Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop and Predator (he often performs stunts for Arnold Schwarzenegger) makes this promise in a campaign video while casually strolling a sunny Squamish street.
Voter turnout in municipal elections is, to be frank, pathetically low. I find this counterintuitive, given that no level of government is more accessible, more immediate or closer to the people than municipal government.
In 2008, just over 30 per cent of registered voters in Vancouver bothered to cast a ballot. In 2011, that number increased to 34.5 per cent. It makes Squamish look good.
There have been plenty of suggestions aimed at increasing voter turnout – allowing people to vote online or making voting mandatory among them. But so far neither of those ideas has gained widespread acceptance in Canada. Critics worry about the security of online voting. Compulsory voting isn't enforced in the majority of the 22 countries that have laws on the books.
No, what's needed are more practical and more enforceable measures. Measures that provide citizens with an incentive to vote, and a disincentive should they stay away from the ballot box.
I propose the following:
1) Pay people to vote. In 2011 Vancouver's three major civic electoral organizations, COPE, the NPA and Vision Vancouver, spent a combined $5-million on their campaigns. That amounts to roughly $12 per vote. Instead of a forest of election signs, endless robocalls and pointless advertising, the parties should be obligated to hand that money over to a neutral third party to distribute at polling stations.
Cast a ballot and a helpful volunteer peels a slippery new $10 bill off a roll and drops a toonie into your hand. Half-an-hour in and out, and you're making more than twice the minimum wage.
2) Make voting mandatory and use city parking bylaw officers to enforce it. We all know that no one enforces bylaws with the shameless zeal of the city's relentless army of parking enforcement officers. These are the same people who will happily and dutifully ticket you for an expired meter at 9:55 p.m. when it's pouring rain. Citizens who don't vote would be tracked down, ticketed, impounded and kept in a city yard until they've paid a fine of $167, plus $30 per day for storage.
3) Let social media preferences and online activity determine who a citizen is likely to vote for, and cast a ballot for them if they fail to do so themselves by 7:59 p.m. on Nov. 15. Let's face it – Google, Facebook, Twitter and other search engines and social media sites know you better than you know you. Why else would you be getting ads for Plenty of Fish? They have been collecting data, charting your preferences, reading your e-mails and keeping track of every Facebook Like, every Twitter Favorite and every Reddit Upvote since you hit puberty. Knowing how you probably would have voted in a civic election is a total no-brainer. This process could be expedited by simply hacking into the "recent locations" feature of every iPhone in the city.
4) Pass legislation that in any municipality where voter turnout exceeds 50 per cent, all newly elected candidates will have to set themselves on fire in the middle of a main street. True, they are not professional stunt people like Peter Kent. But surely voters in Vancouver would turn out in droves to see their newly elected members of council, school board and park board who are not professional stunt people set alight in the intersection of 12th and Cambie and then emerge unharmed.
I mean, right?
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn