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Editorials Globe editorial: Trump, Brexit, hung parliaments… This is why voting matters

If anyone out there still needs a reminder of the power of voting, all they need to do is look back at the last two years.

From the previously unthinkable election of a majority NDP government in Alberta in May 2015, to the surprise election of the Trudeau Liberals five months later, to the shocking Brexit referendum seven months after that, to the earth-shaking election of Donald Trump in November, and on to the recent votes that resulted in hung parliaments in British Columbia and the United Kingdom, Canada and the rest of the western world have been served a super-sized disruption martini.

It has been hard to swallow sometimes, but it has also been a needed curative to the voter apathy that has marked elections in the United States, Canada and elsewhere. The old bromide "If voting changed anything, it would be illegal" seems quaint when one looks at the way voters who actually vote have upended expectations and reset the compass.

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That part about voters who actually vote is important. The uncast ballot has as much power as the one cast.

In the Alberta general election of 2015, Rachel Notley and the NDP went from a distant third party to a majority government, and ended the quasi-monarchical reign of the Progressive Conservative Party in the process. But more than 1.1-million registered voters – 43 per cent – didn't exercise their franchise.

Who knows what the consequence was of that apathy. Ms. Notley won the election handily, but a million-plus Albertans stayed home on election. There's good reason to suspect that they were more likely to have been disaffected or even overconfident PCers. Had they voted, the outcome might have been different

Doesn't matter now, though. Ms. Notley and her party won fair and square. They have gone on to revolutionize Albertan politics by introducing higher minimum wages and a carbon tax, and banning political donations from unions and corporations, among other Western Canadian heresies. The province is being profoundly changed. It will be even more so if the PC Party, an institution that dominated Alberta politics for a half a century, disappears this month in a merger with the Wildrose Party.

All this because some people voted, and others didn't.

Much the same thing happened in the federal general election five months later, in which Justin Trudeau's Liberals, like the NDP in Alberta, went from third-party status to majority government.

This time, 8.2-million eligible voters (32 per cent) couldn't be arsed to cast a ballot. It's difficult to speculate how their apathy affected the outcome. But it is safe to say that those who voted contributed to a change in Canada's direction on major issues such as government spending, marijuana legalization, and immigration. The government of the day during Canada's 150th year is very different in tone and vision than the one that would have been there had the Harper government won re-election.

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That is minor, though, compared to the upheaval wrought by the Brexit referendum, and then by Donald Trump's election. Voters in two of the world's most powerful countries used the ballot box to change history and rewrite the rules of global co-operation.

Turnout was relatively high in the Brexit referendum, at 73 per cent. But that still meant that 13-million people didn't vote in a plebiscite in which the two sides finished less than 1.3-million votes apart. Prime Minister Theresa May, saddled with the negotiations to leave the European Union, subsequently saw her Conservative Party reduced to a minority in an election this month that she thought she'd win easily. Voters have changed the futures of the U.K., the Tory party, and the European Union.

In British Columbia, voters left the long-ruling Liberal Party in a minority position, too, and will end up being ruled, for a while at least, by an NDP government supported by the Green Party. B.C. voters have thrown the future of their province wide open in response to the smugness and complacency of the Liberals.

And then there is the United States. Mr. Trump eked out a victory thanks to the country's electoral college system. It could have easily gone the other way, but more than 120-million Americans chose not to vote in an election that saw one of lowest turnouts in recent history – a meagre 54 per cent.

Those who got out and voted for Mr. Trump have reset American and global politics. You can argue all you want about the fact that Hillary Clinton won more of the popular vote than he did. But the fact is that Mr. Trump is President Trump because enough people in key states voted for him. They made a difference, while others sat and watched.

This is not an earnest appeal, or a patronizing scold, about the importance of voting in a democracy. But it is a wake-up call. When people vote, the world changes. The people who do the voting, bring the change. To argue that voting doesn't matter isn't a defensible position. Not with all the evidence to the contrary.

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