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time to lead

Voters queue in Toronto on Friday, April 22, 2011 to cast advance ballots for the forthcoming Federal Election.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Jean-Pierre Kingsley remembers well the day back in 2000 when he mused that declining voter turnouts might eventually push Canada to adopt a system where its citizens would be forced, by law, to go to the polls.

"I said, 'Well, maybe, eventually, depending, we will have to consider it,' " says the former chief electoral officer.

"And the idea was blasted in the media. There was very negative reaction at just the idea that we might have to think about it."

There was also the retort of National Citizens Coalition president Stephen Harper, who has since changed jobs.

"Jean-Pierre Kingsley is reacting more like a state policeman than a public servant," Mr. Harper wrote on behalf of the NCC. "Would Kingsley's police use the election register to go house to house to force people to the polls or arrest them?"

The reaction left Mr. Kingsley unwilling to take a firm public stance on the matter, even today.

But just how extreme is the notion, in a democratic society where all members benefit from the parliamentary system of government, that people be required to take part in the electoral process?

And how strong is the mandate of a party that won power with the active support of less than 22 per cent of the Canadian electorate - as the Conservatives did in 2008?

It is not true that there has been a steady decline in voter participation since 1867. But the overall trend is down. And that is particularly true of young people, who have felt increasingly disenfranchised from a process that seems tailored to other demographics.

At what stage, asks Mr. Kingsley, are Canadians going to say not enough people are voting and it's starting to affect the legitimacy of the results?

"What would happen if none of us went to vote? What would happen if 10 of us went to vote? What if it were 100 per riding? Well, we would all say, 'One hundred in a riding! God, that's not enough to decide the whole thing for each riding.' Well, what is the number? I don't know."

And when that number is reached, will there be a sudden softening of the opposition to mandatory voting?

Mr. Kingsley calls the term itself misleading. Voting itself would not be mandatory, he says.

Under the Australian system - the one that is most often suggested as a possible model for Canada - citizens face small fines if they fail to put a ballot in the box. But that ballot can be blank. Australians who feel that none of the options put before them are good ones, or who don't trust their own voting skills, do not have to make a selection.

Still, for most Australians, and for people in more than 30 countries around the world that have some form of compulsory voting, a trip to the polls is not an imposition, says Mr. Kingsley. "It's part of the woof and fabric for the people who are born in the system."

Justin Brown certainly feels that way. He is the Australian High Commissioner in Ottawa and he is quite happy to make the argument in favour of a compulsory vote.

"It ensures a very broad mandate for the incoming government," Mr. Brown says. "In countries like Canada and the U.S., where they have relatively low voter turnout, there's often a malingering sense that the incoming government doesn't really have the full backing of the population."

It also means "that that your average person has got a reasonably good motivation to stay on top of the political dialogue," Mr. Brown says. And it requires politicians, in turn, to write policy for the entire population, not just the people they believe are going to vote, he says.

Adam Chapnick, who teaches courses in Canadian governance at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, has not come to a conclusion about mandatory voting but echoes the arguments put forth by Mr. Brown.

There are many people who are not pleased with the direction of government and many of them are from segments of society that have been overlooked by politicians, he says.

"We have to get their voices in play," Dr. Chapnick says. "In a political game, the way to get them in play is to have them voting. Since they don't seem to be able or willing to vote on their own, obligating them to vote will push them in that direction."

Mac Harb is a Liberal Senator who introduced a bill in 2005 to make voting compulsory. It was unsuccessful, but Mr. Harb still believes it is the correct thing to do.

"The bottom line is, we have rights in society, also we have responsibilities. And this is one of those citizens' responsibilities," he says.

Mr. Kingsley says postelection polls that ask Canadians if they voted invariably suggest the turnout was 15 to 20 per cent higher than it actually was.

People "don't want to admit to a stranger at the other end of a phone that they didn't vote," Mr. Kingsley says. There is a recognition, he says, that voting "is part of what one should be doing if one is to benefit from the fruits of democracy."

Continue reading: Part 2

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